Opinion

The Great Debate

Why D.C. is wrong to discredit Iran’s new president

America finds itself exactly where Iran was four years ago. Back then, America had just elected a new, articulate president who offered hope and promised a new approach to the world and Iran. His election was a direct rejection of the foreign policy of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, whose favorite tools of statecraft appeared to be military force and confrontational rhetoric.

The question Iran grappled with in 2009 was whether this new president — Barack Obama — really represented change or if it was merely an act of electoral deception.

Today, the roles are reversed. Iranians have elected a new, articulate president who is promising both the Iranian people and the world community hope and a new approach. His election is seen as a direct rejection of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational policies and rhetoric. Iranians wanted hope and change and they went to the ballot boxes to obtain it.

But four years ago, the Iranian leadership couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the new U.S. president could be a sign of change. Was Obama really intent on shifting Washington’s Iran policy or was it all just talk? Even if his intentions were good, did he have the power to change long-standing policies?

Archconservatives expressed disbelief that Obama could even win. In their cynical view of the U.S. political system, perhaps reflective of their own political conduct, they never thought that Obama could get elected — in spite of his strong popular support. Rather, he won because “those behind the scenes who make presidents and make policies — the puppeteers — decided, and only changed their puppet.”

The cost of America’s first black president

President Barack Obama addresses supporters at his election night victory rally in Chicago, Nov. 7, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Barack Obama, America’s first black president, can be credited with many milestones — a comprehensive federal healthcare bill, taking down the world’s most wanted terrorist, signing the Fair Pay Act for gender pay equality, to name a few.

The obliteration of the Voting Rights Act, however, was certainly unintended. Despite the Justice Department’s zealous defense of the act’s constitutionality in Shelby County v. Holder, a divided Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down Section 4, the core of the act, on the grounds that it is not justified by “current needs.” Substituting its judgment for Congress’s, the court ignored a more than 5,000-page record of “current needs” that Congress relied on in 2006 when if reauthorized, with overwhelming support, the act’s challenged provisions.

NSA as ‘Big Brother’? Not even close

Reader holding a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, June 9, 2013.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

When the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed details about the National Security Agency collecting phone data from telecommunications companies and U.S. government programs pulling in emails and photographs from internet businesses, suddenly “George Orwell” was leading the news.

The British essayist predicted it all, commentators asserted, and the United States now seems straight out of 1984, Orwell’s novel about a dystopian future. “Big Brother” had arrived.

Obama signals global shift on climate change

President Barack Obama rolls up his shirt sleeve before speaking about his vision to reduce carbon pollution at Georgetown University in Washington, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing  

President Barack Obama unveiled his national plan Tuesday to “reduce carbon pollution and lead global efforts to fight” climate change. He intends to rely heavily on executive actions rather than seeking congressional legislation.

This plan, coming less than a year after Superstorm Sandy’s extensive flooding, also focuses on preparing the United States for the effects of near-term climate change.

Why Obama must prevail for a ‘grand bargain’

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (R) in Washington, Mar. 19, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

It’s been a while since we’ve had good news about our economy, so the recent upbeat reports are welcome. The deficit picture for 2013 has brightened a bit, along with an upturn in the housing market. Yet those developments don’t tell the full story. Our economic horizon remains cloudy due to serious structural challenges.

In fact, this improving economic picture threatens to diminish our sense of urgency about striking the needed “grand bargain” to address our fiscal disease. That shouldn’t happen — and Washington policy makers should use the continuing talks about fiscal 2014 appropriations levels to nail down a framework for the deal we all need.

Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense

President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss missile defense, their thorniest bilateral problem, at the G8 summit in Ireland on June 17 and 18. Previous talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have floundered over the alliance’s refusal to give Moscow legal guarantees that the system would not undermine Russian nuclear forces.

But the diplomatic dance around missile defense cooperation has always been like Kabuki theater — with officials playing out their designated roles. There is only the illusion of real engagement.

The looming U.S.-China rivalry over Latin America

President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) in California, June 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Though the U.S. and Chinese presidents heralded a “new model” of cooperation at their weekend summit, a growing competition looks more likely. The whirlwind of activity before President Barack Obama met with President Xi Jinping in the California desert revealed that Beijing and Washington’s sights are set on a similar prize — and face differing challenges to attain it.

Their focus is Latin America and the prize is increased trade and investment opportunities in a region where economic reforms have pulled millions out of poverty and into the middle class. Latin America is rich in the commodities and energy that both China and the United States need, largely stable politically and eager to do deals.

Palmer Raids Redux: NSA v civil liberties

President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency’s secret collection of telephone records from millions of Americans, June 7, 2013.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

During the “Red Scare” that swept the United States in the wake of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Justice Department launched a cycle of raids against radicals and leftists. The U.S. attorney general, a once-celebrated Progressive leader named A. Mitchell Palmer, gave his name to this unfolding series of attacks against civil liberities.

Though initially supported by Congress, the courts and the press, the 1919 Palmer raids revealed a darker side of the American psyche. They eventually provoked a national backlash, which inspired the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union; led to stirring free speech dissenting opinions from Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis, and ignited a political counter-movement determined to prevent similar civil liberties abuses in the future.

Can Christie tackle the partisan divide?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in Asbury Park in New Jersey, May 28, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

How often these days do we see a political figure liked by both Republicans and Democrats? Not so often that we should fail to notice.

But there was the evidence last week in two different polls. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie drew a 58 percent favorable rating from his fellow Republicans around the country and 52 percent from Democrats in a recent Gallup Poll. Forty percent of Republicans in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and 43 percent of Democrats, said they like Christie. (The NBC-Journal numbers are a bit lower because the poll offered a “neutral” option.)

Addressing China’s ‘soft power deficit’

Xi Jinping (L) met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 14, 2012.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for his landmark summit with President Barack Obama in California Friday and Saturday, the critical mission of improving China’s image in the world could well be uppermost in his mind.

The central challenge that Xi faces here is that China’s soft power – its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment – has lagged far behind its purposeful hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

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