American Daesh

Who said what? Can you tell which statements are from the Daesh claim of responsibility for last week’s Paris attacks, and which statements are from “Christian” pastor Steven Anderson?

“…this sinful nation of France”

“…the capital of prostitution and obscenity…Paris”

“…you love death so much, you bought the ticket, you love worshiping Satan!”

“…the Bataclan, where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party”

“…that’s what these people should think about before they go into such a wicked concert”

“France is a sinful, wicked nation.” 

“Paris…the sodomite capital…a wicked place where adultery is the norm”

Have fun!

Lessons in Empathy, Humanity, and Geography

The bodies of Paris’ fallen weren’t yet cold before the ghouls sprung to action.

I saw it plenty on Facebook on Saturday, but by late in the day Conservative Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo had Tweeted the following:

The Syrian refugees are trying to escape a vicious civil war that has been going on since 2011. They are trying to escape the very members of the Daesh death cult (aside: why to call it Daesh and not ISIS/L) who perpetrated the terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night. However, Daesh has taken advantage of westerners’ empathy and of the European Union’s open market and borders to infiltrate the ranks of the refugees and to kill innocent people. Based on current reports, we should be more wary of letting in people with Belgian passports.

The EU’s open border scheme is commonly referred to as the 26-member “Schengen” area, named for the Dutch city where the treaty creating it was signed. Although many of the refugees have arrived in Greece – a Schnegen state – it is not contiguous with any other. The refugees have largely passed from Greece into non-EU states Macedonia and Serbia before arriving in EU/Schengen member Hungary. Overwhelmed by refugees it didn’t want, Hungary quickly sealed parts of its border with Serbia, causing migrants to instead head for non-Schengen EU state Croatia. From there, they have been processed and allowed passage through Schengen-EU members Slovenia and Austria into Germany, which has all but invited them.

The point of all of this is that these small, often poor, southeastern EU members are ill-equipped to properly process and vet everyone coming through. This is a serious problem for Europe, and one it needs to get a handle on quickly because of the admitted Daesh infiltration. This is difficult, but not impossible.

When France says it’s closing its borders, it doesn’t mean it’s not letting anyone in or out – it means it is re-establishing border controls that it took down when Schengen was implemented. Until last week, anyone wishing to travel between France and literally any one of its neighbors did not generally have to stop and show a passport upon entry or exit; there were no customs or passport controls, like when you travel from New York to Connecticut. Now, France has re-established passport / identity card checks on all of its points of entry, which likely spells the end of the Schengen experiment, at least for the time being.

The United States, by contrast, is neither a member of the EU, nor a signatory to the Schengen agreement. Likewise, its territory is not contiguous with that of Europe or the Middle East. A Syrian refugee has to board a plane or ship in order to get to the US, and must have a valid passport or refugee travel document and requisite visa or other permission to do so. The process to obtain a US visa is not a simple one, and subjects an applicant to a background check and consular interview.

Even members of countries that belong to the US visa waiver program have a series of hurdles to jump before they’re allowed entry into the US. These travelers are subjected to screening before they’re let on the plane, much less upon arrival at their point of entry. It’s safe to say that our Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection are selective and cautious about whom they let into the country; especially by air, and especially with a passport from a war zone, or with a Red Cross refugee passport. The State Department’s underlying resettlement process takes 18 – 24 months to properly vet and screen refugees coming to the US. It’s also safe to say that any refugee seeking passage to the United States from Europe will be subjected to a level of scrutiny about which you or I would become so incensed, that we would write scathing Facebook posts or Yelp reviews condemning it.

As the Syrian refugee crisis was gearing up, local news outlets reported in September that up to 300 Syrian refugees were likely to eventually settle in western New York. (WGRZ, Buffalo News, Buffalo News, Business First, WIVB). They would not simply teleport to WNY en masse to impose Sharia Law on Erie County. In his Tweets, (and in the social media postings I have seen from other Republican mouthpieces in the last 48 hours), Lorigo pushes the fiction that it’s somehow Mark Poloncarz who is personally inviting these 300 Syrian refugees to western New York, or – more to the point – that Poloncarz has some say in the matter. He doesn’t, and it’s not.

The County Executive and the County Legislature have no power to exclude people legally present in the United States from settling here. County government – neither Poloncarz nor the legislature – has no say in who gets to settle here.

There are four refugee resettlement agencies in western New York – Journey’s End, the International Institute of Buffalo, Jewish Family Services, and Catholic Charities of Buffalo, which combined assist about 1,500 refugees every year. Recent refugees resettled in western New York have arrived from war-torn places like Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, the Congo, and Eritrea, yet at no point did any politician take time out to concern-troll about security on Twitter about any of them.

The United States is expected to welcome about 10,000 Syrian refugees. That isn’t just a comparative drop in the bucket, but a Californian drought. By contrast, the EU has brought in 270,000 refugees, Lebanon has welcomed 1.1 million, and Turkey has 1.7 million.

The opportunity to politicize a human tragedy of epic proportions is, no doubt, irresistibly tempting for some. Add in the opportunity to exploit hysteria, fear, and racism, and you’ve got a toxic brew of resentment waiting to be stirred. It’s especially palpable in a place like Buffalo, which is just getting back its economic sea legs.

Poloncarz issued the following statement Sunday, including a response to Lorigo. Emphases mine:

Our thoughts go out to our brethren in France and we stand by our French compatriots after this horrible attack. On Friday evening immediately after the Paris attacks I contacted Central Police Services Commissioner John Glascott and Emergency Services Commissioner Dan Neaverth, Jr. to determine if there were any terrorist warnings or other information on potential terrorist attacks in the United States. The Commissioners, who are in constant communication with federal and state homeland security agencies regarding potential terrorist threats, advised me there were no credible threats reported. Since then the Commissioners have provided me with ongoing reports from the Counter Terrorism Center at the New York State Intelligence Center, a division of NYS’s Homeland Security Department. I also spoke to Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, who informed me that his office had no knowledge of any credible threats. The Sheriff and all Erie County departments take any threat very seriously and will remain vigilant going forward.

In regard to Legislator Lorigo’s comments, I am disappointed both by his comments and his ignorance of the process of resettling refugees in our country. Erie County government is NOT an active participant in the re-settlement of refugees. The decision to allow refugees of any nationality into our country is made by the federal government and the placement of refugees who are legal immigrants into communities in the U.S. is made by the federal and state governments. Neither the County Executive nor any branch of Erie County government has any say in whether any refugee is resettled in our community, nor can we prevent a legal immigrant from being resettled here.

In New York, local not-for-profit resettlement agencies work with federal and state agencies to place refugees into communities based on the ability of the agency to support them. Local resettlement agencies include Catholic Charities of Buffalo, Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., and the International Institute of Buffalo. Once a refugee is placed in our community through one of these agencies, Erie County’s Department of Social Services may work with the agency and individual, if the individual qualifies for any federal or state benefits, to ensure a better transition into the community.

Many of the refugees fleeing Syria are Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians who fled their country because they had no choice. As such, I am very disappointed by Legislator Lorigo’s statement, which seemed to be stoking the fires of Islamophobia. While we all must remain vigilant, it is important to note that our region has a long history of being a new home for immigrants from around the world who fled civil war or faced persecution in their homeland, including Iraqis, Burmese, Somalis, and during the past two years a small contingent of Syrians. All of these people have been vetted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, before being admitted to our country and placed in any community.
Erie County’s limited role, working with our partner agencies, is to help individuals who have been legally admitted to our country regardless of their religion or country of origin adjust to a new home. In that role, as always, we will continue to remain alert against terrorism in any of its forms, foreign or domestic.

What is all this? Joe Lorigo  – the majority leader of the do-little County Legislature – sees an opportunity to expoit people’s fears to grab a headline, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t take advantage of it. Watch Monday as his colleagues in the majority caucus inevitably echo his clarion call; people with no say over the matter demanding that another guy with no say over the matter do something. I’ve already been accused of holding a “cynical” and “insulting” opinion on this topic when expressed via social media. Perhaps – it wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last, but it represents my observation of what’s happening.

When there’s a mass shooting in the United States and gun control advocates express a desire for fewer guns, or that people be subjected to tighter restrictions on their ownership or possession, we’re told that we’re anti-Constitutionalist traitor motherfuckers and that these things wouldn’t do a stitch of good. Yet somehow excluding 300 Syrian families from resettling in WNY is magically going to prevent terrorist attacks?

Scott Whitmire, a former WNYMedia.net colleague of mine, is more conservative than I, and we frequently disagree – especially when it comes to gun violence. After recounting a few recent cases where Americans rushed into danger to help save strangers to whom they owed nothing, he wrote this:

I won’t claim that this “have a go heroism” is uniquely American: It is not. It is, however, an intrinsic part of our DNA. We enlist by the millions to fight wars not our own. We rush towards danger, we hear the call, the sound of gunfire and we fight. Often, we prevail. Often our cause is not ours, but the cause of those that cannot take their quarrel to the foe.

After the carnage in Paris last night, many are calling for halting all influx of refugees from war-torn Syria. Pictures of dubious provenance are being circulated purporting to show that all of the refugees are fit, trim, fighting age males. The implication is that the stream of refugees is an undercover army or somesuch. People are saying that Paris is the result of allowing streams of Muslims into France. People are explicitly blaming the refugees. People are using these events to paint all Muslims with this bloodied brush. Others point out that the refugees are refugees precisely because of the actions of ISIS and their ilk.

I am not particularly interested in entertaining a conversation that paints a billion and half people with the actions of dozens. Or hundreds. Or thousands. This is barely statistical noise. The conversation we need to be having is this: What is the risk posed by taking in the refugees, and are we willing to bear that risk.

Make no mistake: Welcoming 100,000 people from that region virtually guarantees that we will be bringing in some who are either already jihadists or are easily recruited to that end. If only 1% of the refugees fit the profile of current or recruitable jihadi, that’s about 1000 individuals. If 1% of that pool is actually motivated to action, that’s 10. Paris was carried out by 8. You may dispute my numbers, they are, after all, only guesses. Depending upon who you ask, that 1% could be anywhere from 0.1% to 30%, I feel comfortable with 1% as a reasonable guess.

Bringing in 100,000 Syrian refugees thus significantly increases the odds that we will see a Paris/Mumbai style attack here. Even screening out the active jihadist won’t change that fact as often terrorists are recruited after moving.

We owe the Syrian refugees nothing.

It’s a pernicious threat because it’s so decentralized. The only response to decentralized threats is a decentralized response. No other nation on earth is as equipped to deal with such a decentralized threat. Remember, we’re the ones that run at the jihadi on a train when he’s armed with a rifle. We’re the ones that run toward gunfire on a campus. And these were unarmed folks. We’re the ones that own guns at a rate that far outstrips every other nation, civilized or no.

So, to come full circle. We take horrific risks, often on behalf of those to whom we owe nothing. Innocent Syrians fleeing civil war are precisely such people. Bringing them here is a risk, but it’s a risk we are uniquely prepared to face, at least outside of the democrat controlled places like NY. Should we do it? Should we let them in? If so, how many? How do we screen them? Where will we house them? I don’t know. I do know that we should fight the urge to reflexively turtle the fuck up.

As an ancillary point to all this, I’ve made no attempt to assess long term risks and benefits, but these also need to be part of the conversation. I know that the divide on this issue is largely along the same lines that divide us on gun control. If you accept the premise that a decentralized response can mitigate the risk posed by the influx of refugees, perhaps those on the left could offer some changes in their demand for our disarmament. You may find that people are more supportive of taking risks if you decide to defend rather than attack their ability to meet those risks.

I don’t advocate generally for disarmament – merely that we do what we can to try and prevent violent maniacs from having barrier-free access to firearms. I don’t advocate for barrier-free entry to this country for anyone claiming to be a refugee, either. We have processes and investigatory procedures in place to assess whether an applicant is to be allowed into this country. If you think back to the 1990s, this country took in hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. How many Bosnian-Americans have committed some act of terror in this country?

But Whitmire’s underlying point is valid – we stick our necks out for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free all the time, and we shouldn’t knee-jerkedly reject the small handful of Syrians we’ve agreed to take in just because of what happened in Paris. We shouldn’t stoke fear and hatred to gain political points or advantage.

Out of many millions of Syrian refugees, here we have one –  maybe a few – who committed an atrocity. We must fight and reject terror, regardless of its perpetrators or aims. We should also reject political efforts to exploit fears and prejudices, and render the words “refugee” and “terrorist” synonymnous. We should especially do this when it politicizes a tragedy before its dead have had the dignity of burial. Joe Lorigo takes to Twitter, grabs a headline, and implicitly alleges that Poloncarz would knowingly or intentionally put western New Yorkers at risk.

That, to me, is truly the more cynical and insulting notion.

Let’s Talk about Iran

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Economic sanctions have been known to work in the past. We punished the South African apartheid government with sanctions, and that helped bring about change. Burma had suffered under sanctions for years until it decided to re-join the world community a few years ago. We sold Pepsi-Cola to the Soviet Union, and communism fell in 1991. Sanctions haven’t ousted Cuba’s or North Korea’s regime, nor did they prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons.

We’ve been engaged in a cold war with Iran since the 1979 Islamist coup that overthrew the Shah, and the subsequent hostage crisis. Even Ronald Reagan didn’t go to war against Iran, choosing instead to fund and supply Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and ultimately to illegally sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Yet after all that, Iran is still a theocracy led by mullahs, and Sandinista Daniel Ortega is back in power in Nicaragua.

Sanctions have had a negative effect on Iran, and they have not been one-sided since the US teamed with China, Russia, Germany, the UK, and France to engage Iran in negotiations over its nuclear ambitions. It was the sanctions that brought Iran to the bargaining table. After months of negotiations, there is a treaty that will gradually lift sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to shut down – or at least delay – its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. This is no small thing – our refusal to engage Iran only emboldened it to grow its nuclear program by leaps and bounds over the last decade and a half.

This Fox News “analysis” finds that 70% of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability came about while Obama has been President. But it isn’t about us – it’s been growing steadily from zero in 2000. Calling Iran part of the “axis of evil” and imposing sanctions barely put a dent in their plans. Confronted with this reality, we have two choices: war or diplomacy. The US and its negotiating partners chose the latter. War, as we’ve seen – not learned – in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, can be as ineffective as it is blood-soaked.

The Iranian government is no friend of the United States. Neither, for that matter, are China or Russia. But Germany, France, and the UK are, and two of those allies are run by conservative governments. The proposed Iran deal doesn’t contain everything the United States wanted, but Iran walks away having made concessions, too. That’s the nature of diplomacy and negotiation – everyone gives up something, everyone walks away somewhat disappointed.

But now we have the spectacle of the American right taking up common cause with Iranian extremists, united in the notion that this deal is a colossal disaster. The new, ultra-right Israeli government is opposed because it says the deal doesn’t go far enough, yet the only alternatives are status quo or war. Israel is under constant threat from Iran, and is surrounded by enemies, some of whom are funded by Iran. Others have complained that the Iran deal doesn’t free American prisoners or other tangential concessions. This is true, but what recent history has shown us is that bringing a malefactor in from the cold can have a moderating effect on its behavior.

For as long as the US has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba, that island’s Communists have been able to use that as an excuse for its own failures, and as a rallying cry to perpetuate that aging revolution. Now that relations with Cuba are slowly being normalized, Cuba becomes less isolated, less able to cast blame on discontinued scapegoats. Change might be hastened through engagement. The Iranian people showed the world a few years ago that they are eager for freedom and democracy. The simple fact is that Iran has the potential to be a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Obviously, we have a very long way to go before that might happen, but we’re already informally aligned with Tehran in the fight against ISIS, especially in Iraq, which has effectively become an Iranian client state. The enemy, after all, of my enemy is my friend.

The neoconservatives’ thesis was that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would help to stabilize the Middle East and improve Israeli security. We got the exact opposite result. The Arab Spring’s other short-term successes have also generally turned into catastrophic failures, with few exceptions. The problem is that these countries – these peoples – have never known what it is to be a free democracy. All of them have been colonized and oppressed, manipulated and beaten into submission. What military might and the secret police couldn’t accomplish, religious extremism filled the gaps. During the cold war, we’d align ourselves with whomever opposed the communists, including religious fanatics. Engagement with Iran and verification of compliance with this treaty can lead to serious, perhaps productive discussions about not only American prisoners in Iran, but also Iran’s behavior as a regional power. Iran, after all, isn’t Iraq. It’s far more advanced, much more diverse, has an exceedingly different history.

I harbor no illusions that this deal with Iran is going to further moderate that country’s regime, nor that its hostility towards Israel will diminish, or that it will become some overnight good international actor. Not that these things are impossible – just unlikely. I also don’t trust the Iranian regime any more than I trust Putin’s Russia or the PR China. However, we have diplomatic relations and engage in negotiations with myriad governments and states whom we don’t especially like or trust. We have an opportunity here to at least partially set aside two generations’ worth of existential hostility and take a small step towards building a more stable Middle East – one less threatened by a putative nuclear Iran tomorrow than yesterday. It bears mentioning that, even with this deal, the US will maintain its own trade embargo and sanctions until Iran stops exporting and funding terrorism.

An economically crippled Iran is a threatened Iran, and what better way for it to perpetuate its own aging revolution than to export war and misery in the name of Allah? The notion that tightening sanctions would force the Iranians to give more ground is ludicrous; the suggestion that we back it up with a threat of force – no matter how vague or specific – is even worse. After all of these negotiations with the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, in what way does it advance American interests to jettison this deal? It would effectively mean that the United States does not negotiate in good faith and cannot be trusted – exactly the thing we accuse the Iranians of doing and being. If the UK’s Conservative PM David Cameron is on board with this deal, what possible reason would there be for an American conservative to be opposed? Seriously, if Angela Merkel – who just brought Greece to its financial knees – if on board, how is this some sort of appeasement? The Economist explains,

… the problem faced by those who would like to see the deal collapse is that they have yet to offer any attractive alternatives. Ordinary Iranians are desperate to get back to having a normal economy, while American voters have little appetite for going to war with Iran to prevent it getting a nuclear weapon. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted just before the agreement on April 2nd was announced, Americans support the notion of striking a deal with Iran that restricts the nation’s nuclear program in exchange for loosening sanctions, by a nearly two to one margin.

And this, from the Atlantic,

In 1943, Walter Lippmann wrote that “foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power.” If your commitments exceed your power, he wrote, your foreign policy is “insolvent.” That aptly describes the situation Obama inherited from Bush.

Obama has certainly made mistakes in the Middle East. But behind his drive for an Iranian nuclear deal is the effort to make American foreign policy “solvent” again by bringing America’s ends into alignment with its means. That means recognizing that the United States cannot bludgeon Iran into total submission, either economically or militarily. The U.S. tried that in Iraq.

The risk of an Iran re-introduced into the world economy is that it will use that to wreak more havoc throughout the region. On the other hand, there is a possibility that it will moderate its rhetoric and actions, finding that it’s easier to govern when your people and their economy isn’t weighted down by sanctions. No one says Iran will become a responsible international actor overnight, or for that matter, ever. But without a deal, Iran will have a nuclear weapon practically on-demand. With a deal, that will not be the case. An Iran without nuclear weapons is preferable to the alternative.

The War on Diplomacy

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Ironic, isn’t it?

Generally speaking, diplomacy and negotiation is a pretty good way for independent and sovereign nation-states to resolve differences. More importantly, however, diplomacy and treaties help to prevent war. War should be a last resort, not a foreign policy tactic. Our misadventure in Iraq stands as an example of how stupid it can be to rush to war. Invading Iraq, removing Saddam Hussein from power, and occupying that cobbled-together multiethnic, multi-sectarian state had absolutely no positive impact on regional security.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Nowadays, most especially since President Obama’s election, any sort of diplomacy is seen as Chamberlain ceding the Sudetenland to Hitler at Munich; appeasement.

Right now, six nations are negotiating a comprehensive deal with Iran to ensure that this regional sponsor of terrorism cannot develop nuclear weapons. Generally, Republicans who don’t trust President Obama might at least be heartened by the fact that Britain’s Conservative PM and Germany’s CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel are at the table with the US, France, Russia, and China. But negotiation and diplomacy are now considered appeasement.

Never mind that the absence of a deal between the permanent members of the UN’s Security Council plus Germany will free Iran to develop whatever nuclear weapons it wants under the quickest timeline it can possibly muster. Negotiating a deal with Iran with a strong inspections regime can ensure that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons that it could use against our friends in the region. But negotiation and diplomacy are now considered appasement.

Never mind that Iran is simultaneously funding and supporting militant Shi’a groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, it’s also helping our allies fight Daesh in Iraq. It’s an unlikely alliance, but the enemy of our enemy is often our friend. But negotiation and diplomacy are now considered appeasement.

Never mind there’s no deal finalized yet, and we don’t exactly know what the outlines of any putative deal might be. Never mind that, for all its faults, a thaw in relations with Iran could have very positive effects for both countries and the region. Iran has been crippled by international sanctions imposed at the UN to halt its nuclear ambitions; it has a palpable incentive to negotiate in good faith. But negotiation and diplomacy are now considered appeasement.

Forty-seven Republican Senators signed an unprecedented communication to Iran’s government, offering up a big middle finger to President Obama and a condescending lecture about our Constitution, indicating that President Obama has no authority to negotiate and conclude any deal with Iran and our four negotiating partners. To so blatantly and openly undermine a President who is in the middle of negotiating a multilateral deal with our partners. Labour isn’t undermining David Cameron, and the SDP isn’t undermining Angela Merkel. The Republicans’ hatred and disrespect for President Obama is so strong that it vastly outweighs their love of this country.  These 47 lawmakers would weaken the US to embarrass the President.

What have they accomplished with their letter? Nothing. The President – rightly – accused these Republicans of aliging themselves with Iranian hard-liners who also want no deal, so they can be free to develop whatever weapons they want. Do these 47 Republicans prefer war – possibly nuclear war – with Iran rather than a deal preventing war? The Iranian Foreign Minister called it what it was – a propaganda ploy to kill any deal, regardless of what it might contain.

Vice President Biden wrote,

In thirty-six years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which Senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary— that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them. This letter sends a highly misleading signal to friend and foe alike that that our Commander-in-Chief cannot deliver on America’s commitments—a message that is as false as it is dangerous.

The decision to undercut our President and circumvent our constitutional system offends me as a matter of principle. As a matter of policy, the letter and its authors have also offered no viable alternative to the diplomatic resolution with Iran that their letter seeks to undermine.

Many have accused these 47 Republicans of violating the “Logan Act”, a piece of legislation from 1799, which reads in relevant part:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

But even as a political ploy, how is this different from the recent efforts to link funding of the Department of Homeland Security with a shutting down of President Obama’s recent immigration policy initiative? The GOP might have the majority in the Senate, but not a veto-proof one, and by so egregiously undermining a President whose administration is in the middle of negotiating a deal with our partners and Iran, it ensures that the issue is now politicized and they’ll never get Democrats on board to help them.

A senior American official said the letter probably would not stop an agreement from being reached, but could make it harder to blame Iran if the talks fail. “The problem is if there is not an agreement, the perception of who is at fault is critically important to our ability to maintain pressure, and this type of thing would likely be used by the Iranians in that scenario,” said the official, who spoke anonymously to discuss the negotiations.

The White House and congressional Democrats expressed outrage, calling the letter an unprecedented violation of the tradition of leaving politics at the water’s edge. Republicans said that by styling it as an “open letter,” it was akin to a statement, not an overt intervention in the talks.

Congressional Republican hatred of the President outweighs love of country. Republican hatred of Obama is more important a policy goal than an international deal ensuring that Iran can’t develop a nuclear weapon. The deal sunsets in 10 years? What would prevent these world powers from negotiating something permanent down the road?

Preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is a bipartisan goal. Pre-rejecting a deal that doesn’t exist is counterproductive and stupid, and undermines the President and makes the US seem like an untrustworthy bad actor that lurches around like a banana republic. It’s stupid because it’s bad politics, bad policy, and an ugly precedent to set. Hey, good job taking the “Hillary Clinton E-Mail” story off the front page, Republicans!

The real appeasement would be to abandon these negotiations and simply free Iran up to develop nuclear weapons. The only reasonable conclusion one can draw from this “open letter” is that at least 47 Republican Senators prefer to go to war against Iran. The war on diplomacy has got to end.

New GOP Congress to Destroy Canadian Border

Google Maps 2015-01-28 06-30-07Need to make an IKEA run? How about a show on King Street, an exhibit at the A.G.O., or maybe just a really good pizza here, here, or here? You might want to knock things off your Ontario to-do list if Congressional Republicans get their way.

Although temporarily pulled for being too weak, the “Secure Our Borders First Act” (HR 399) would impose unprecedented restrictions on leaving the United States via our border with Canada.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, controls at the Canadian border were strengthened, and travelers were required to produce proof of citizenship in order to enter the US. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was enacted to try and balance security and freedom to travel. A tattered birth certificate or simple driver’s license was no longer enough – now you need a Passport, NEXUS, or enhanced driver’s license. While arguably improving security, it added cost and time to crossing the border.

Congress’ latest idea is to require biometric testing – e.g., fingerprinting or iris scans – for people departing the United States via the northern border. Every person in every vehicle would be required to exit the vehicle and provide biometric information. As you might imagine, the impact that this would have on routine cross-border visits for business, tourism, or just shopping, would be catastrophic. It would quite literally shut the border down, and it would deal a devastating blow to the western New York economy, which relies heavily on Canadian shoppers and cross-border traffic for jobs and tax revenue.

The “Secure Our Borders First Act” is billed in national media as being a Republican bitch-slap at President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. But the affect on the Canadian border isn’t some inadvertent accident – it was a deliberate amendment brought forward by freshman Republican congressman from Syracuse John Katko. As the Finger Lakes Times reports,

Newly seated Rep. John Katko wants the nation’s northern border to get the same attention as the one down south. Katko, R-24 of Syracuse, introduced legislation last week to require the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a northern border threat analysis. The bill is Katko’s first since he took office earlier this month.

“As a former federal prosecutor on both the northern border in New York and the southern border in El Paso, Texas, I’ve seen first-hand the issues our nation faces countering drug trafficking and potential terrorist acts,” Katko said in a press release. “While great attention is justifiably given to the challenges of securing our southern border, ensuring the safety of our vast northern border is critical to our nation’s security.”

Katko’s district includes the Lake Ontario shoreline in Wayne, Cayuga and Oswego counties, which is part of the international border with Canada…Katko said he also added an amendment…to the Secure Our Borders First Act authoriz[ing] the deployment of the same type of technology and resources on the northern border as it does for the southern border.

The Secure Our Borders First Act also includes the language from Katko’s stand-alone bill. “I’m committed to enacting tough border security to ensure the safety of upstate New York and the sovereignty of our nation,” Katko said. “Requiring timely assessment of the threats posed by illegal entry on both the northern and southern border, and adequately responding to those threats, is crucial to making that happen.”

The Secure our Borders First Act would allocate $10 billion for border security. It has come under fire from both sides of the aisle, with some Democrats arguing that it does not offer real solutions and some Republicans arguing that it represents a prelude to amnesty.

Add to that criticism the fact that this is a fundamentally idiotic, pointless, and harmful piece of legislation. You picked a doozy, Syracuse. Requiring biometric testing upon departure from the US would require the construction of inspection booths on the outbound lanes.  Requiring every occupant of every vehicle to exit and provide biometric information would be time-consuming and accomplish absolutely nothing.  Every effort to better integrate the WNY economy into that of Southern Ontario would simply vanish. Erie County sales tax revenue from Canadian shoppers would plummet and put more pressure on WNY taxpayers.

The Peace Bridge’s Ron Reinas told the Buffalo News that this proposal would kill border crossings. Congressman Higgins reacted similarly:

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, predicted that people would simply stop crossing the border because of the biometric testing provision, which would require the government to take fingerprints from or do iris scans of everyone in every vehicle leaving the country. “This job-killing bill would effectively close the northern border and cripple key components of the U.S. economy, including manufacturing,” Higgins predicted.

When Rep. Higgins offered an amendment delaying biometric implementation until Homeland Security could determine whether it would impede border traffic, Republicans shot it down.

Republicans on the committee defended the measure, saying biometric tests at the border would go a long way toward securing it by giving the federal government a way of checking which foreign visitors had overstayed their visas. Currently, foreigners who travel to the U.S. from many countries must have a visa, but there is no system in place to discover when they have overstayed those visas. The biometric inspection system would create that system by giving the government a way of cross-referencing biometric exit data against the list of visas the government issued. Some 49 percent of the undocumented immigrants in America simply overstayed their visas, rather than entering the country illegally, said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. “This would give us a way to eliminate almost half the illegals that are in this country by knowing when they left and when they did not,” said Duncan, who noted that four of the hijackers who perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had overstayed their visas.

There’s no exception made for citizens of Canada or the US, who don’t need visas to visit each other’s countries. Because a small percentage of visitors to the US on tourist visas stay longer than they’re allowed, we will effectively shut down the Canadian border. This is bad government, and it introduces exit controls rivalling what the Warsaw Pact countries concocted pre-1989.

It’s also a breach of contract with the Canadians, and completely unnecessary. The US and Canada share information on who is crossing the border. When you enter Canada and the agent takes your passport, that information is transmitted to the US, and vice-versa. We don’t need to construct a new infrastructure and biometric testing to secure the Canadian border. When did we abandon that careful balance between security and liberty?

…the provision appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the “Beyond the Border” agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which aims to make crossing the border easier, not harder. What’s more, the Beyond the Border agreement appears to offer the U.S. a way of knowing who is leaving the country without installing a new biometric inspection system. “The Beyond the Border Action Plan committed Canada and the U.S. governments to put in place entry-exit information systems at the common land border to exchange biographical information on the entry of travellers, including citizens, permanent residents and third-country nationals,” said Christine Constantin, spokesperson for the Canadian embassy in Washington. “The system would allow a record of entry into one country as a record of an exit from the other.” Currently the system exists for exchanging data on third-country nationals, permanent residents of Canada and lawful residents in the United States at all automated points of entry, Constantin said.

Our local Republican Congressman, Chris Collins has absolutely nothing definitive to say about any of this.

…while he thinks the nation needs tough legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, at the southern border, he has concerns about the biometric inspection requirement. “If implemented wrong, this could potentially create problems for the Western New York economy,” Collins said. “So, I will be working with my colleagues to protect Western New York from any negative economic impact.”

Potentially? This is a WNY killer. How could this be implemented “right“?

When the bill was pulled, the Buffalo News noted that Collins proposed an amendment not dissimilar from Higgins’ own.

Under Collins’ proposed amendment, the requirement for biometric tests would not move forward until after completion of a demonstration project aimed at testing whether the mandate would create traffic chaos. Collins’ measure would mean that the biometric requirement would move forward only if it “has not resulted in increased wait times at any border crossing that was participating in such pilot program.”

Calling himself a “doubting Thomas” on the proposal, Collins said: “What we want is just to make sure that anything we do, number one, works, and number two, doesn’t cause undue delays at our northern borders and for folks coming to Bills and Sabres games and going to the Galleria mall. We can’t have backups at the Peace Bridge or Rainbow Bridge or any of the others that would dissuade Canadians from coming into this country and also inconvenience Americans.”

It was never introduced because the GOP pulled the bill, but while Collins gives himself credit, the real reason might have to do with ultra right-wing Congressmen from the deep South believing the whole thing is too milquetoast. If you tend to believe in conspiracies, it might be reasonable to suppose that this whole thing is designed deliberately by Republicans to do harm to blue border states like New York.

Asked about Collins’ alternative, Higgins said he was concerned that the results from any biometric demonstration project might not tell the story of what would happen at every border crossing. “This doesn’t take into account the fact that every single border crossing is different,” Higgins said. A spokesman for Collins said, though, that the legislation calls for three demonstration project sites rather than just one, meaning that problems could well surface somewhere during the testing. Higgins also noted that the biometric requirement appears to be redundant at the Canadian border, as the U.S. and Canadian governments have agreed to exchange exit and entry information about travelers as part of their “Beyond the Border” initiative to make border crossings easier. “Why isn’t that being taken into account?” Higgins asked. “Is it ignorance? Is it arrogance?”

Higgins hits the nail on the head. This proposal is completely pointless. It adds an unduly restrictive anti-immigrant act to our grand security theater.

As I argued in this article, we should be making our border with Canada work smarter and better. Restricting the market for labor, goods, and services is silly, and there are ways to free up cross-border traffic while addressing security issues.

Requiring every occupant of every IKEA-bound and Galleria-bound vehicle to provide fingerprints or an iris scan upon exit from the United States is pointless, redundant, theater, expensive, and would reverse and devastate WNY’s fragile and tentative economic recovery. I can understand how some throwback fascist southern xenophobe might decide that exit visas or fingerprinting might be a great idea for the Canadian border, but we’re talking here about New York congressmen who should know better than to destroy their own districts.

The text of the bill where Congressional Republicans seek to ruin the western New York economy is here. To call it a disgrace is a collossal understatement, and the only one who gets it is Congressman Brian Higgins. Your liberty and wallet are under Republican attack.

(Side note: the voters in NY-26 dodged a huge bullet last year).

L’Obamaphobie

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On Sunday, there was a huge rally in downtown Paris in honor of the people slain during the week in attacks by jihadist madmen. It was a strong show of support for the principles of pluralist democracy and freedom of speech, including the freedom to offend and ridicule.

The United States Government was not visibly represented at the rally.

This has resulted in two astonishing domestic right-wing memes. One is predictable: Obama is a national disgrace. The second was unforeseen: America’s right wing suddenly like France.

It wasn’t always thus. In 2003, France had the foresight and bravery to oppose the United States’ disastrous invasion of Iraq. In response, some Republican forced the House cafeteria to re-name French Fries “Freedom Fries”, because – duh – France hates freedom. It was America’s right wing that invoked a crack from a cartoon to deride the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. American right-wing Francophobes have repeatedly derided France as being a bunch of anti-American, anti-freedom cowards. One t-shirt from a decade ago declared, “First Iraq, Then France”.

Now, all of a sudden, it is safe even for conservative Republicans to feign respect for France. After all, now there’s an empty Champs-Élysées leading directly to Place de l’Obamaphobie.

This anger at Obama not going to Paris to march in the unity rally is completely fake and homegrown.

This rally in Paris isn’t about Obama and it isn’t about the US. If our participation would have misdirected attention from the rally’s purpose to something different, then it’s better the POTUS not go. American Ambassador Jane Hartley – whose mission is to represent American interests, citizens, and values in France – marched in the demonstration.

This wasn’t a state funeral or some summit meeting with the G7. This was a street demonstration.  Think Kennedy in the open-top Continental, but there’s no getaway car. The President doesn’t generally do “impromptu”, and he definitely doesn’t attend a street demonstration in a foreign capital. Even if he did, the security would be ridiculous.

When the President does his inaugural parade, he’s in an armored Cadillac. He gets out only when the Secret Service says it’s safe to do so, and even then, he’s flanked by more security than you or I can imagine. But we’re supposed to believe that he can just stand at the front of a cordon of world leaders in downtown Paris on a Sunday, and the already-beleagured Secret Service would just go along with that? This was a rally with 3.7 million people. Hell, if it’s so important, did you go?

The bottom line is: never let an opportunity to hate Obama get in the way of facts; there’s no winning.

Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t there – he was in India on a previously scheduled visit. But in 2004, the Republicans blasted Kerry for “looking” too French; now he’s not French enough? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was at the Paris Charlie Hebdo rally, but in 2013 his government complained to the UK about an editorial cartoon Israel considered to be anti-Semitic. Russia sent its foreign minister – Putin’s Russia, which has implemented media censorship and harassment that is closer to pre-Glasnost Soviet actions than with any nominal support for political satire or freedom of expression.

The White House said Monday that it should have sent someone with a higher profile to the march. Why? Whom would that appease? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio? Not the French, for sure – a quick scan of Paris papers on Monday reveals that France wasn’t so much worried about why Obama wasn’t there, but instead why several world leaders were. More to the point, Reporters Without Borders issued a scathing criticism of the characters who marched in Paris ostensibly in support of press freedom.

On what grounds are representatives of regimes that are predators of press freedom coming to Paris to pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo, a publication that has always defended the most radical concept of freedom of expression?

Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the presence of leaders from countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted such as Egypt (which is ranked 159th out of 180 countries in RWB’s press freedom index), Russia (148th), Turkey (154th) and United Arab Emirates (118th).

“We must demonstrate our solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting all the world’s other Charlies,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

“It would be unacceptable if representatives of countries that silence journalists were to take advantage of the current outpouring of emotion to try to improve their international image and then continue their repressive policies when they return home. We must not let predators of press freedom spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”

The authorities have announced the presence of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra, UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Gabonese President Ali Bongo.

“Obama marches in streets of Paris with leaders of oppressive regimes” would have been the right-wing meme in the alternative universe where Obama attended the march. The cover of Liberation focused on Netanyahu visiting the Kosher supermarket that was attacked, noting that some media reported that Netanyahu came to Paris uninvited. Liberation only noted that American media were criticizing Obama’s no-show; it did not echo any actual French sentiment along those lines. Le Monde noted how former French Premier Nicolas Sarkozy “shook protocol” by getting up to the front of the line. It also focused on the French debate over whether they should implement something like our “Patriot Act”. Le Monde noted that Obama wasn’t at the Paris rally, but covered his visit to the French Ambassador to Washington.

Had Obama gone, these people with their fake outrage would have been sharing some semi-literate Breitbart or Twitchy piece about how that uppity Obama and his fat wife and stupid kids used Air Force One to go to a thing at a place.

The people angriest about Obama not going to march with the Gabonese, Malian, and Palestinian heads of state in Paris are the ones who would criticize him for doing just that if he had gone. France isn’t mad; it didn’t necessarily need Obama to be there, and the feigned outrage over his absence comes from one particular sentiment that had no business being part of that rally – American chauvinism. We don’t always have to make everything about us.

The people most vocally feigning anger at Obama not marching in Paris are the very people who viscerally hate Obama’s very existence. They blame him for not going because what – he supports terrorism? Because he’s a seekrit Moozlim and supports the jihadists?

Let’s dismiss it as the nonsense it is.

Tor-Buff-Chester in City & State

us-canadian-flags2An article I wrote advocating for the establishment of a Schengen-like customs and immigration union between Canada and the US is in City & State Magazine.

Until recently, Western New York’s outreach to Canadian governments and businesses had been inconsistent. For almost a decade the federal government rejected the notion of U.S. inspection on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge due to concerns about jurisdiction and sovereignty. This seemed ridiculous, considering that air travelers to the U.S. are now pre-screened by American agents at Caribbean and Irish airports. How can Dublin accomplish what Fort Erie cannot?

Read the whole thing here.

(Also, with respect to my writing appearing in City & State, this September post is relevant).

Diplomatic To-Do List: Cuba Libre

ad-1958-havana-hiltonThe biggest hypocrites in the world are Cuban exiles who oppose the normalization of our diplomatic relationship with the Cuban regime.

By way of background, the US normalized our diplomatic relationship with Stalin’s Russia in 1933. We maintained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany all the way up to the declaration of war in 1941. By no means does having an embassy in a country signify approval or endorsement of the host nation and its system of government. It is, as the name implies, the normal way in which nation-states interact with each other.

It is through discussion and engagement that desired change can be made. The embargo and our attempts diplomatically to isolate Cuba since 1961 have objectively been a thorough failure. As in 1961, a communist Castro wears olive drab and heads a nominally socialist mafia that oppresses its people, stifles expression, and rejects the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas. The embargo has accomplished little. Keeping Americans and their money out of Cuba serves only to help the regime perpetuate the revolution, giving them an easy scapegoat to justify their oppressive behavior and economic backwardness.

Eastern Europe unshackled itself from Marxism-Leninism in the late 80s and early 90s, and the entire former Warsaw Pact, except the former Soviet Union, is now a free and democratic member of the European Union.

I posited that, on the question of changing our diplomatic relationship with Cuba, the opinions of Cuban dissidents matters to me. If they’re happy, I’m happy, I wrote. On Facebook, conservatives attacked this idea as folly. Examples:

U.S. public policy should be formed by foreign dissidents, not by duly elected American officials. Venceremos!

Not at all what I wrote, of course. When I pointed that out, here was the reply,

Yes, and perhaps Barry can bow deeply from the waist to Raúl, and apologize for Amerikkka’s fifty-year efforts to stop Fidel from imprisoning Cuban citizens.

So, trolling.

But then this came in:

As I sit in Miami preparing for a meeting with another Cuban American CEO – my third in two days – I can promise you Alan that the preponderance of opinion of Cuban exiles is against this Obama move. By far. So, what you’re saying here is: “I only care what [rare] Cuban dissidents like Yoani Sanchez [who agree with my world view] have to say about it.”

Well, I never discounted the opinions of domestic Cubans, but since that’s where we’re going, yes. I believe that the opinions of Cubans who live in Cuba and fight the regime from within are far more relevant than that of exiled CEOs in Miami. Or Marco Rubio. Or Ted Cruz. Or any other Cuban-American who knee-jerkedly demands an abolition of Communism before we open up a relationship with the Cuban dictatorship.

I have no idea if Yoani Sanchez “agrees with my worldview” or not, except insofar as she fights a dictatorship from within at considerable personal and professional risk. To my mind, rejection of dissident opinion is not something that, e.g., a Ronald Reagan would have done vis-a-vis the USSR in the 80s, so it’s shameful to do now when politically expedient. In fact, I think it’s shameful.

Absent any other rational explanation, I reckoned that weighing the opinion of exiles as more persuasive than that of in situ dissidents must be based on the fact that the latter aren’t awash with cash and supporting Republican candidates for office.

Respecting the informed opinions of both sides and devising your own is a more effective tack if you ask me. For example: I’m not for keeping the present US policy in place. I’m for requiring change in Cuba before changing US policy. We didn’t do that, which history proves is a serious mistake.

There has, of course, been some incremental change in Cuba. They ended the exit visa requirement for travel. The harassment continues, but they’ve laid off dissidents a bit, and freed – or promised to free – key political prisoners. They have liberalized the economy for small-scale family-run private enterprise, even allowing people to be hired and fired – something even Tito’s Yugoslavia didn’t allow. There are now almost 400,000 Cubans who are entrepreneurs, or working for one. The laws have been re-written to permit the private ownership of personal and real property.

All of that in just the last 5 years. If “change” is the pre-requisite, it’s happening. Slowly, for sure. Not enough? Definitely. But the same can be said of Burma, and we normalized relations with them. Vietnam, ditto. People’s Republic of China – did that in 1979, and the difference between now and then is breathtaking.

But politicians are still in thrall of the Cuban exile community, which has historically opposed any liberalization of ties with that country. Except.

Except they are the biggest hypocrites.

Cuban-Americans have free rein to travel to Cuba whenever they want, as often as they want. They likewise have free rein to send remittances to family members in US dollars, which get converted into (soon-to-be-abolishedconvertible pesos, and go to support the regime, (which they supposedly so oppose that they don’t even want to open up normal diplomatic relations with it). The convertible pesos can be spent in special dollar stores to buy imported items and goods that are in short supply in regular shops.

Then when Cuban-Americans travel to that country, the money that they spend also goes to prop up the regime they hate so much that Americans with no family ties to Cuba must receive a special Treasury license to go there.

When Cuban exiles are willing to shut down their own travel and dollar remittances, then I’ll listen to entreaties about how normalizing relations or lifting the embargo is a horrible, capitulatory mistake.

After all, it’s been 50 years and the embargo and cutting of diplomatic ties have done nothing to weaken or abolish the Castro regime. In reality, it’s only given the Castros an ongoing excuse to maintain revolution without end, and to oppress their people.

But because everyone cites opinion polls except when it’s inconvenient to do so (see, e.g.,  Obamacare), note that 2014 polls of Cuban-Americans shows that almost 70% support the normalization of diplomatic relations; 90% of younger respondents support the move. 70% of respondents support lifting the embargo, and a similar percentage believe that the embargo didn’t / doesn’t work.

As for Yoani Sanchez, whose opinion matters more than yours or mine, because she challenges that regime by her very existence, she has this to say:

Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by – as one of its main pillars – the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.

So she fundamentally disagrees with the notion that this was an American defeat; quite the opposite. She goes on,

In the central market of Carlos III, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting football or videoclips, but a speech by Raúl Castro and later one by Obama through the Telesur network. The first allocution caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the US president, particularly when he mentioned relaxations in the sending of remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.

It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition, like the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of disappearance. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.

This, however, is just the beginning. Lacking is a public timeline by which commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of the synergy of both announcements to extract a public promise, which must include, at a minimum, four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months.

The consensus points demanded by Cuban civil society (a euphemism for dissident activists) are:

  • The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience;
  • the end of political repression;
  • the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws;
  • and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island.

Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.

As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to think that the day we have longed for is not close. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

In the New York Times, she writes,

The tension between the two governments lasted so long that now some people don’t know what to do with their slogans, their fists raised against imperialism and their sick tendency to justify everything, from droughts to repression, on the grounds of being so close to “the most powerful country in the world.” The worst off are the most recalcitrant members of the Communist Party, those who would die before chewing a stick of gum, drinking a Coke or setting foot in Disney World. The first secretary of their organization just betrayed them. He made a pact with the adversary, behind the scenes and over 18 long months.

The thaw in relations with the US and concomitant pledges from the Castro regime give the activists some room to demand follow-through. After 50+ years, the Castros lose a bogeyman and gain some responsibility. It’s not everything, but how’s that for a start?

If Cuba’s Dissidents are Happy, I’m Happy

@yoanisanchez Via Google Translate

@yoanisanchez Via Google Translate

We’re not lifting the embargo. We’re simply going to normalize diplomatic relations. This means we’ll have an embassy in Havana, they’ll have an embassy in New York, and we will conduct diplomatic business with each other as we would with any other country.

This does not mean that we’re friends, even. It just means that we’re talking.

We normalized diplomatic relations with Stalin in 1933, and with Maoist China in 1979. We normalized diplomatic relations with Communist Vietnam in 1995. We had diplomatic relations with all sorts of despots and horrible places.

Normalization is not an endorsement of the Castro regime, nor for Cuba’s communist system. This is not an endorsement of Cuba’s oppression.  If anything, the diplomatic process will go a long way towards expanding US – Cuban ties, and hopefully doing for Cubans what trade and contact did for ties with China and pre-Putin Russia.

It is, however, high time the embargo was lifted. It has given Castro 50+ years’ worth of excuses for his oppression and economic stagnation.  Taking that excuse away will go a long way towards making Cubans free again.

As a final thought, please check out the website 14ymedio, which is operated by Cuban citizen journalists like Yoani Sanchez, of the Generacion Y blog. They are happy, so I am happy.

Demand Better from Washington

Torture is illegal.

Torture is shameful.

Torture is immoral.

Torture doesn’t work.

Pick whichever one of those works for you.

The CIA lied about it to Congress and the Administration lied to the American people.

Many in the American right are freaking out because, when you get past the pretexts, they simply love torture. They think it shows strength and leadership, and that waterboarding or making a guy stand for hours in the cold on his broken legs is magically going to produce good information.

But if you need proof that the CIA’s torture program was not just illegal, but morally depraved, consider they even tortured the guy who “sang a like tweetie bird” on his own. We shoved hummus up guys’ asses for freedom. 20% of the detainees shouldn’t have been there. There was no meaningful oversight. As most people thought, sadistic federal retiree Dick Cheney’s name is all over the report.

The CIA’s torture program was worse than anyone thought, and produced nothing worthwhile. It was ended by President Obama in 2009.

What was revealed yesterday amount, frankly, to war crimes, and this – from the CIA – isn’t good enough:

As noted in CIA’s response to the study, we acknowledge that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the Agency made mistakes. The most serious problems occurred early on and stemmed from the fact that the Agency was unprepared and lacked the core competencies required to carry out an unprecedented, worldwide program of detaining and interrogating suspected al-Qa’ida and affiliated terrorists. In carrying out that program, we did not always live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves and that the American people expect of us. As an Agency, we have learned from these mistakes, which is why my predecessors and I have implemented various remedial measures over the years to address institutional deficiencies.

You want to argue that these detainees deserve it because they were murderers and terrorists? Some of them were, some of them weren’t. But if you’re comparing our behavior to that of our brutal mass murderer enemy, that’s a pretty low standard.

If you think that the American government’s moral and legal standards should be equal to that of al Qaeda or Daesh, what does that make us?

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