Opinion

The Great Debate

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

In Syria, the United States has been rightly careful about whom to aid — but as a result, the U.S. government has provided very little aid and thus created a void that others have filled. It is not yet clear whether Washington understands its own end-goals for the conflict and is communicating clearly how to achieve them. As history has demonstrated, this lack of clarity can lead to fateful unintended consequences. U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s provides a telling example.

Beginning in 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to send minimal assistance to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration vastly increased this aid, to a high of more than $600 million a year in 1987. The Saudi government matched all U.S. funds.

On NSA, Obama still says ‘trust me’

President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday on intelligence reform marked a bullish shift in his approach to the National Security Agency.

The president dropped the pretense that there was “nothing to see here” — which his administration has offered since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the NSA.’s expanding surveillance. Obama now acknowledges that there are problems to be solved. Yet his reforms boiled down to “trust me.”

While Obama did announce several new ways to increase accountability at the NSA, most were limited to executive actions. So the president basically changed his mind about the limits that he wants to place on his own powers. That means he can just as easily change his mind again and reverse course. So can the next president.

Women: The changing face of U.S. poverty

We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the 50 years since the launch of the War on Poverty. In today’s economy, poverty increasingly falls on women. They make up over half the workforce, and two out of three mothers are the primary or co-breadwinner for their household.

But one thing hasn’t changed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty: When we think of the poor we still think of someone else. That’s why it’s crucial to share stories — including my own.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston, the child of two immigrants who had come from India decades earlier. We lived in Bedford, Massachusetts, a quintessential middle-class town. But when I was 5, my parents got divorced and my dad left. My mother was on her own.

Mexico’s reversal of fortune

In Latin America, this looks to be the year of Brazil — thanks to the impending World Cup and presidential elections. But with another lackluster year looming in emerging markets, fans of transformation, growth and investment potential should instead look to Mexico.

Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is expected to win a second term this year, and its soccer team stands a good shot at victory. But growth has slowed considerably. In the world’s seventh largest economy, reforms are stagnating and the country faces a possible ratings downgrade.

Mexico, by contrast, is in the throes of serious reforms. It will likely lead Latin America with at least 4 percent growth this year and an improving investment outlook. Standard & Poor’s recently boosted Mexico’s credit ratings because of energy reforms that the rating company trumpeted last month as a “watershed moment” for the country. It is becoming a story of inverted fortunes, as Michael Shifter and Cameron Combs of the Inter-American Dialogue recently wrote.

How do we measure whether Americans are better off than in the past?

Are you better off than you were twenty years ago? Probably not relative to very rich people today, but what about relative to you, or to someone your age and position twenty years ago? Income inequality has been called the defining issue of our time. Powerful leaders, from President Obama to Pope Francis, have cited it as evidence that the unfettered capitalism that has enriched the wealthy hasn’t been shared. Of course, there’s a difference between the gains in income being shared evenly, shared a little, or making everyone else poorer. In many ways the average American is much better off than he used to be; in other ways he’s worse off.  But even if we focus on what’s gotten better, we may still need to worry about the future.

The most common metric used to measure changes in our economic condition is income, but several other factors determine quality of life: health, consumption, leisure time, financial security, and prospects for the future. Which of these factors matters most comes down to personal values. Some people prefer more leisure to income. If they work less, even at the cost of lower earnings, they’ll be happier. Some people are more comfortable with risk; health care coverage and financial security matter less if they can buy more stuff.

In order to assess economic improvement, we must also consider demographics. Over the course of your lifetime, you will probably see an increase in earnings and wealth and accumulate goods. Most people get pay raises as they age and acquire more skills. They also become more risk averse and have more years to collect wealth. In this respect, the relevant question is: are your finances improving at the same rate they used to? Or did people your age used to have more than you do now?

The fierce fight over how to die

There has been an ugly and sad pile-on by two people who ought to know better and a young woman fighting against cancer. It started — as these things can — in the blogosphere, where Lisa Bonchek Adams, mother of three and terminal cancer patient, has been chronicling her battles in sometimes raw detail.

Her tweets are full of pain, literal and emotional. Apparently, her revelations have proved too much for journalists Emma Gilbey Keller and Bill Keller. In a post on theguardian.com, Ms. Keller suggested that Adams has gone over the line.

“Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience?” Keller wrote. “Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies?”

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Punitive politics: Bigger than Christie

There is a “Sopranos” episode where a deal for a beachfront house on the Jersey shore goes awry at the last minute and Tony Soprano decides to punish the reluctant seller for changing his mind. He sends a couple of mobsters in a boat mounted with giant speakers to remind the recalcitrant homeowner of the wonders of the Italian popular songbook played at full volume. When it comes to ingenious punishments, Jersey leads the field.

What no one has yet explained about the intentional four-day traffic jam levied on the good people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the George Washington Bridge, is the real reason the punishment was exacted.

Was it to hurt the mayor by making his constituents so angry they would, in some future ballot, blame it all on him? Was it to punish the voters for choosing a mayor who declined to back Governor Chris Christie’s re-election? Other possible theories have also been suggested. But in any case, closing the traffic lanes would hardly seem an effective way of exacting revenge.

Filling judicial vacancies to protect the progressive legacy

What could never happen, finally did.

For more than 30 years the Democratic Senate caucus feebly stood by as Republicans seized control of the federal courts. Now, however, faced with a GOP filibuster of nominees for three vacancies on the appeals court that could determine the fate of most of President Barack Obama’s initiatives, the Democrats have at last responded.

The Democratic Senate majority last month eliminated the 60-vote requirement to end filibusters against presidential nominees to the lower federal courts and the executive branch. With this, they blocked a key element of the GOP’s long-term strategy to overturn the progressive legislative and judicial advances of the past 50 years, and prevent new Democratic initiatives.

Five years into Obama’s tenure, Democratic judicial appointees are still barely even with the number of active Republican judges. There are 93 vacancies, including 37 judicial emergencies as of January 7, with 53 nominations pending. If Obama is to preserve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy – as well as his own — against the many hostile judges now on the bench, he and the Senate will have to act quickly.

Christie: The scandal of hubris

The scandal involving New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, whose aides virtually shut down Fort Lee by throttling its access to the George Washington Bridge into New York City, reportedly to punish the city’s mayor for not endorsing their boss, is so classic that you could put it in a textbook on how a politician can make a developing political scandal much, much worse.

The model goes like this: aides to a governor, a rising political star, are looking to hurt the governor’s enemy. They engage in behavior that is definitely low, likely illegal, and possibly criminal. People start pointing fingers in the direction of the State House.  The governor ridicules the critics. But the state legislature, controlled by the opposing party, launches an investigation and subpoenas high officials. The testimony is embarrassing. Key gubernatorial appointees quit suddenly, one labeling the evolving scandal a “distraction.”  Then — inevitably, it seems — a smoking gun surfaces.

The governor apologizes. He fires someone. But people accuse him of painting himself as a victim instead of taking full frontal responsibility for the mess. Debate begins on whether his political future is toast — nay, on whether he should step down from office.

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