Opinion

Jim Gaines

from The Great Debate:

US strategy vs. Islamic State: Better right than fast

Sep 2, 2014 17:57 UTC

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In her recently published memoir Hard Choices, former Senator Hillary Clinton recounts the meeting, nine days after the election of 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama first asked her to be his secretary of state. He “presented a well-considered argument,” she writes, “explaining that he would have to concentrate most of his time and attention on the economic crisis and needed someone of stature to represent him abroad.”

No doubt he meant that sincerely -- the U.S. financial system was still deep in crisis — but in the context of events this summer, Obama’s assumption that he would be focused mainly on domestic concerns suggests how little even a president of the United States can claim control of world events. The murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State have put a very fine point on that.

Few U.S. presidents have faced as many disparate foreign-policy challenges as those that confronted Barack Obama this summer. Last month alone, he managed to help remove the too-sectarian leader of Iraq, helped to stand up a more inclusive government there, then launched a campaign of air strikes to support efforts to keep it from folding further into the Islamic State. The month began with a “green on blue” attack in Afghanistan that cost the life of a U.S. general (the first such casualty in 44 years) and ended with a resumption of political hostilities between presidential candidates that took  the Afghan government to the brink of collapse on the eve of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Meanwhile “liberated” post-Gadaffi Libya slid further toward chaos, Israel waged war with Hamas in Gaza, and Russia more or less invaded Ukraine.

Last week, while most of that was still going on, the president was asked at a press conference whether he would seek congressional approval to take action against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. He said yes but it would have to wait until specific plans were fully developed in light of all possible variables: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Widely and in some places willfully taken out of context to mean “I have no idea what we should do”, that quote was the headline everywhere, the talk of the Sunday morning news shows. Of all the many politicians and pundits to castigate Obama for lack of a detailed battle plan, perhaps the most remarkable was Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian deeply suspicious of U.S. military action, someone who opposed punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons and who has advocated cutting off all foreign aid. “If the president has no strategy,” he said, “maybe it’s time for a new president.” If that new president were himself, he said, he would call a joint session of Congress and ask for authorization to “destroy ISIS militarily.”

Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East

Aug 26, 2014 21:02 UTC

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Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

from The Great Debate:

Why America can’t disown the children at our border

Jul 14, 2014 17:43 UTC

Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales

It only seems like the latest immigration crisis hit by surprise, turning up suddenly on the U.S. border from someplace deep in the jungles of somewhere else.

In fact, the children’s exodus from Central America has been in the making for decades. It is coming from a region where the United States has been a major political and military player for more than half a century, and it has roots in U.S. streets and prisons. If these kids weren’t the ones suffering the worst of it, you might call them payback.

During the 1980s, when much of Central America was racked by civil wars, thousands of Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan families fled north and settled in U.S. slums, where their kids formed gangs in part to protect themselves from existing gangs who rejected and threatened them. Police traced the worst of the carnage in the Los Angeles riots of 1992 to street gangs, including an obscure group of Salvadoran immigrants that called itself Mara Salvatrucha.

from The Great Debate:

To celebrate the Fourth of July, don’t go see this movie

Jul 2, 2014 16:26 UTC

Independence Day fireworks light the sky over the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, in Washington

The week of July Fourth seems an odd time to release a film that questions the patriotism of the president of the United States, but that is precisely what right-wing idol Dinesh D’Souza sets out to do in his new film America: Imagine the World Without Her.

I wouldn’t ordinarily dignify such nonsense with a column, but America the movie exemplifies everything that’s wrong about the American political conversation these days, rich with examples from both left and right.

You get to meet a Sioux activist who wants to blow up Mount Rushmore, and a Chicano activist who talks about the golden morning when the United States will no longer exist. A former professor says that under certain unspecified conditions it might be just fine to drop a nuclear bomb on the United States.

from The Great Debate:

Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom forum features a kinder, gentler Republican message

Jun 27, 2014 13:25 UTC

 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie walks out to shakes hands with Ralph Reed after he spoke at the second day of the 5th annual Faith & Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" Policy Conference in Washington

The great American composer and critic Virgil Thomson used to say that when he went to a concert, he didn’t listen to music. He listened for music.

That was a good way to approach the latest convention of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C. There was music in the air, especially for those who still hope there is some common ground in our deeply divided republic, but you had to listen hard.

“Every day of this presidency has been an impeachable offense,” said Monica Crowley of Fox News. “This is the deliberate takedown of America.”

from The Great Debate:

US-Iran relations: When history isn’t history after all

Jun 19, 2014 11:41 UTC

STUDENTS MARCH TO GATES OF TEHRAN UNIVERSITY AFTER NATIONAL STUDENT'S DAY RALLY.

I learned what a trickster history can be 20 years ago at Hanoi airport. After everything the United States gave and lost in Vietnam while trying to keep it safe from Communism, who would have thought you would find the lion lying down with the lamb at a business convention? But there it was, capitalism in capital letters, a billboard advertising VIETNAMERICA EXPO!

Who won that war again?

Things like that change how you understand the world -- if only by teaching you to wonder about even those things you think you know for an absolute fact.

It happened again last weekend. I read something that laid waste one of the most common assumptions of Cold War history: that an expert 1953 CIA covert operation in Iran overthrew a democratically elected prime minister to put the shah back back in control of his country. Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues persuasively in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that President Dwight Eisenhower’s CIA did not actually bring down Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh after all.

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