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John Nichols

John Nichols

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China Gains, US Loses in Asia Power Play

US and Chinese national flags are hung outside a hotel in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The paralysis in Washington, brought to crisis levels by the Tea Party–led Republican shutdown, is having a crucial impact overseas, underlining the long-term decline of American influence abroad. The beneficiary: China, of course.

Meanwhile, the US-led “Doha Round” trade talks and the long-running American effort to create an anti-China trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are both going nowhere fast. China, taking advantage of its clout in the region and America’s decline, is proposing its own counter to the TPP, namely, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The inevitable decline of American influence and power, of course, is not going to be reversed by US military shows of force, such as the dangerously misguided, counterproductive and reckless interventions in Libya and Somalia this week. That impresses no one, except perhaps gullible viewers of Fox News. In the real world, fewer and fewer people are taking America seriously.

The most obvious result of the shutdown-cum-default crisis in Washington—which has drawn alarmed reactions in both Tokyo and Beijing—is that President Obama canceled his visit to Asia this week, including an important appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Indonesia, where in Obama’s absence China’s president, Xi Jinping, took center stage. As the New York Times reported, ruefully, Xi took over as “the dominant leader at a gathering devoted to achieving greater economic integration,” adding:

Mr. Xi, the keynote speaker, delivered a long, tightly scripted speech that made no reference to Mr. Obama and concentrated on the theme of Chinese economic overhaul at home, and the need for China to have the Asia-Pacific region as a partner abroad.

A panicky-sounding editorial in The New York Times, noting that Xi “grabbed the spotlight” at APEC, added:

The Republican-induced government shutdown and the party’s threats to create another crisis next week over the debt ceiling are causing harm internationally as well as at home. They are undermining American leadership in Asia, impeding the functioning of the national security machinery, upsetting global markets and raising questions about the political dysfunction of a country that has long been the world’s democratic standard-bearer.

China is exercising its economic muscle throughout East Asia, becoming the most important trading partner for country after country in the region that is supposed to be the target of Obama’s vaunted “pivot.” (Instead, Obama finds himself bogged down in the Middle East and Afghanistan, dealing with the Syrian civil war, talks with Iran, a crisis in Afghanistan, and the military takeover in Egypt.) So, as the Times noted:

Mr. Obama’s absence was particularly damaging to American interests here in Indonesia, where the growing economy has been bolstered by a stronger Chinese presence that until a few years ago was resisted, said John Kurtz, the head of the Asia Pacific region for A. T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.

Mr. Xi visited Indonesia last week and announced that China would open a $50 billion infrastructure bank to service the region.

China is clearly unhappy with the emergence of the TPP idea, despite less-than-convincing statements from Washington that TPP isn’t aimed at China:

In its account of the APEC summit, the China Daily, an English-language newspaper in China, slammed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It said the negotiations over it were “confidential talks” and the pact was “widely considered a new step for the United States to dominate the economies in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The Washington Post, in its report, says that China is rather unrestrained in its thrilled accounts of the sans-America meeting at APEC:

Chinese media gloated Tuesday over President Xi Jinping’s “star” performance at an Asia-Pacific trade summit in Indonesia that his American counterpart was unable to attend.

The Post report gave many examples of China’s reaction:

“Bipartisan games in the US have let the world see the worst of US democracy,” wrote senior commentator Huang Haizhen. “It is clear to other Asia-Pacific countries that America’s return [to Asia] strategy has become powerless.”

In an editorial, Wen Wei Po said the US “pivot” to Asia had undermined peace and stability in the region by encouraging Asian countries to see China as a threat and as the instigator in regional territorial disputes.

Now, the editorial said, more and more countries are “no longer being used by the US but are improving relations with China rationally.”

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The United States, which had intended to wrap up the initial agreement on the TPP this year, now admits that it’s not going to happen. A big obstacle is that the TPP would stress the key role of dismantling state-owned enterprises, or SOE’s, which is a direct challenge to Vietnam, a socialist country that, like China, has many SOE’s in all fields of industry. As Reuters reports:

More intrusive than other trade pacts, the TPP seeks to regulate sensitive areas such as government procurement, intellectual property and the role of state-owned enterprises as well as giving corporations more rights to sue governments.

Inside Vietnam, of course, there’s a debate between pro-free market reformers and advocates of a socialist-based economy built around SOEs.

Stymied on trade and economics, Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama’s stand-in, fell back on the tried and true, namely, American military power and security issues, as The Wall Street Journal noted in its lede:

US Secretary of State John Kerry is moving his focus from trade to regional security matters as he fills in for President Barack Obama at back-to-back summits in tiny Brunei beginning Wednesday.

That’s because the United States hopes it can parlay its military power in the region, still overwhelming, into strengthening military alliances and relationships with Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan and other countries, including Vietnam, by raising the Chinese boogeyman. But, as the Journal notes, Xi knows that:

“China will firmly uphold regional peace and stability,” Mr. Xi said in a speech to business leaders at the APEC meeting Monday, for instance. “Without peace, development is out of the question, like water without a source or a tree without roots.”

Oh. And next year, APEC will meet in—you guessed it—Beijing.

Leslie Savan breaks down Jon Stewart’s puzzling interview with Kathleen Sebelius.

Paul Ryan’s Shock Doctrine ‘Fix’ for the Budget Stalemate


Paul Ryan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Forget about death and taxes.

If you are looking for certainties in American politics, count on this one: If a crisis of governing develops, the advocates for cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will arrive with a plan to resolve the “stalemate” by implemeting their favorite “fixes.”

Cue Paul Ryan.

The House Budget Committee chairman has for the better part of a decade been the most determined advocate on Capitol Hill for the Wall Street agenda that says earned-benefit programs should be reshaped as investment vehicles and voucher schemes that will benefit brokers and the health-insurance industry. The key to the project is to get Americans talking about “reforming” popular programs.

Unfortunately for Ryan, his previous attempts to peddle “reforms” have proven to be supremely unpopular—so much so that, when he was nominated in 2012 as the Republican vice presidential candidate, he became a burden on the ticket. His performance in the single vice presidential debate proved to be a comic exercise in the avoidance of his own past positions. And as Election Day approached, Ryan was bundled off to safety Republican states in the South, where his appearances would do no harm. NBC’s Saturday Night Live parodied the Wisconsin congressman’s inability to deliver his home state for the Romney-Ryan ticket. And he actually lost his own precinct, city and county in the industrial city of Janesville where voters began to realize that their representative was more interested in delivering for the financial-services industry interests that fill his campaign coffers than for Americans who rely on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Ryan’s kept reasonably quiet since the election that saw him run worse than the vast majority of his House GOP colleagues. But now he is back, trying to position himself as the Republican who can heal the great divide in Washington. In a much-discussed Wall Street Journal column—published at the critical juncture between the beginning of the government shutdown that was engineered by his caucus and the beginning of what could be a debt-ceiling standoff—the Budget Committee chairman scopes out what is supposedly a middle ground where Democrats and Republicans might get together an “actually agree on some things.”

What things? “Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code…”

If that sounds like the austerity agenda that Ryan has been proposing for years, well, yes, it is.

What’s different is that the congressman thinks he can sell his failed ideas now as a way out of an otherwise irresolvable “standoff.” Readers of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine will recognize the scenario: a politician waits for a crisis to pitch an unappealing and otherwise unacceptable “fix.” Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher employed this approach with her “TINA“—“there is no alternative”—pronouncements about so-called “reforms” of popular programs.

The key to the strategy is to make radical changes sound reasonable and necessary.

Ryan recognizes this.

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, he buffs the rough edges that got him in trouble in the past. There’s no talk of individual accounts and vouchers.”

But the program remains the same.

“Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started,” Ryan announces. “We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and cut costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.”

Translation: means-testing of Medicare. Make way for more price-gouging by the private companies that sell supplemental insurance. Launch a new assault on public employees who have already been hit with wage freezes and furloughs.

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Ryan suggests that the Obama administration has shown some openness to some of these proposals, but that does not mean that the Ryan plan can or should appeal to the American people, or to the House and Senate Democrats who were elected in 2012 to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Or for anyone who thinks that the better program for meeting America’s economic challenges might be to ask the wealthiest among us to pay a little more into Social Security and into the general fund.

Ryan assures his readers that his latest proposal is a sincere effort to end the “stalemate” in Washington—even as he takes swipes at President Obama for “giving Congress the silent treatment.” And he promises: “This isn’t a grand bargain.”

Sly move there. While his proposal may not be a full “grand bargain”—with partial privatization, vouchers and all the other highlights of past Ryan budgets—the plan that the Wisconsin Republican has rolled out is a downpayment on the grand bargain he’s been seeking for years. And, at a political juncture when Ryan’s Republicans can gin up a “crisis” whenever they like, no one should imagine that the congressman and his generous campaign donors are dreaming dreams of a much grander bargain.

Lee Fang introduces the “evangelical cabal” behind the government shutdown.

What Should Democrats Demand in the Budget Showdown?


(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Republicans entered the fights over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling with a list of demands. Here are some of the modest concessions they sought in return for not shutting down the government (and, now, re-opening it after they shut it down) and/or not tanking the global economy by forcing the United States to default on its debt: approving the Keystone XL pipeline, eliminating all federal funding for Planned Parenthood, or privatizing Medicaid. Democrats, for their part, have mostly just tried to pass “clean” bills on both instances, and in the case of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded, have even accepted sequestration spending levels.

Playing with either—threatening to shut (and keep shut) the government or, worse, failing to raise the debt limit and forcing the United States to default on its obligations—is irresponsible politics. But if this is going to be a negotiation, Democrats should play offense with a list of their own demands. Even better, there are plenty of things they can put forward in negotiations that would actually have the added benefit of helping boost the economy beyond just keeping lawmakers from damaging it!

1. A public option for healthcare. Many progressives pushed hard for a system that would ensure universal access to health care, often called a public option and frequently accomplished through making Medicare available to all. That got stripped from the bill that became the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans want to make the fight about healthcare, progressives can suggest tinkering with Obamacare—by instituting a public option. This wouldn’t just make sure that everyone has access to healthcare—including those currently being left out by red states that refuse to expand Medicaid—it would also help control spending on healthcare. Medicare’s administrative costs are 2 percent of its spending, compared to 14 percent in the private industry. Its spending growth increased at a rate about 1 percentage point lower than private insurance from 1970 to 2002.

2. Universal preschool. President Obama has already put forward his plan to expand preschool to all. Democrats could stake out ground by not just demanding preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds but going even further to offer free, quality childcare (that pays workers a decent wage) for all. The benefits of free access to high-quality preschool are already well known. One study found that Chicago’s program will generate $11 for every dollar spent in economic benefits over a child’s lifetime. Another found that society stands to see a $9 return for every dollar spent in increased earnings and employment and reduced crime, need for public benefits and grade repetition. Well-educated Americans help increase the labor supply, which boosts GDP. None of these studies take into account the fact that universal preschool—particularly if it extends down to infants—is a huge benefit for working parents, particularly women, who are the default caretakers.

3. Raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. Democrats have been calling for a raise in the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck as $7.25 an hour for four years. Worse, the tipped minimum wage is just $2.13, which hasn’t been raised since 1991. If the wage had kept up with inflation since its peak in the 1960s, it would be over $10 an hour. Fast food strikers have gone further, demanding a raise to $15 an hour, so as bargaining leverage Democrats can start at least that high and make sure it keeps rising as costs rise. And the good news is a raise would give the economy a much-needed boost. The Chicago Fed found that raising the wage to $9 would increase household spending by $48 billion, and even if the possibility of job losses is taken into consideration—which is pretty unlikely—spending would still go up by $28 billion, or 0.2 percent of GDP. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift nearly 6 million people out of poverty. Not to mention that it would help close the gender wage gap and the racial wealth gap.

4. Free public college. It may sound far-fetched, but the cost isn’t quite so large as you might think. The Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has found that the government already spends $22.75 billion on tax breaks and incentives for the cost of higher education. The government also spends about $104 billion on student loans. But the cost of providing free public higher education has been estimated at about $127 billion, lining up close with the figure the government already spends on subsidizing college. Konczal points to evidence that a “public option” for higher education could do a lot to control tuition costs. It would also likely expand access to higher education for many that currently see it as out of reach financially, creating a highly skilled workforce and boosting economic growth.

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5. Guaranteed paid family leave, sick days and vacation. The United States falls far behind other developed countries when it comes to paid time off. We’re the only advanced country that doesn’t have a policy guaranteeing paid vacation time. We’re the only country in the top fifteen most competitive that doesn’t have a paid sick days policy. We’re one of three countries out of 178 that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, let alone paid paternity leave. Meanwhile, we rank at number fourteen in hours worked. Democrats have been pushing for paid family leave and paid sick days, but they can wrap in paid vacation time to push for more guaranteed time off of work. Paid family leave would help bring more women into the workforce, relieve the cost burden on families and close the gender wage gap. Paid sick days at the state level have been shown to spur job growth and enjoy strong business support. And taking time off of work to decompress makes workers more productive.

At the very least, Democrats should be resisting the Republican push to keep sequestration spending levels in a “clean” CR funding bill. But they should think about playing offense and pushing for some policies that could do a lot for the economy.

What would you include in the list of things Democrats should demand? Leave a suggestion in the comments or with the hashtag #DemDemands!

John Nichols on the federal workers bearing the brunt of the shutdown politics.

Like Jon Stewart, Joe Lhota Aids the Tea Party ‘Crazies’ on Obamacare

New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota is making big noises about what morons his fellow Republicans are for shutting down the government. But he’s all in with one of their central demands—to delay Obamacare for a year.

The socially liberal, fiscally conservative Lhota, who has referred to “Tea Party crap,” said on WNYC radio yesterday, “The shutdown is a disgrace…. I cannot tell you how upsetting it is for me to see 30 extremists in Washington control the entire government.” He says “both” sides (natch) “need to come to the table and they need to negotiate.”

But Lhota shares the extremists’ negotiating point of putting off the Affordable Care Act for a year, because, he says, “there’s so much confusion about the individual mandate right now.”

Bill de Blasio, Lhota’s Democratic rival, said through a spokesman that Lhota’s “endorsement of delaying Obamacare puts him in lockstep with Republican extremists like Ted Cruz—extremists who would rather shut down the government and furlough thousands of New York City workers than see hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers get access to health care.”

But last night, Lhota, Cruz, the Tea Party, John Boehner et al. got a boost from some unexpected quarters: as rightwing blogs brayed, Jon Stewart slammed into Human and Health Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius when she came on the show to push the ACA. After ragging (and rightly so) on the program’s technical glitches, an unusually obsessive and obtuse Stewart asked her five, six, maybe seven times why can’t the individual mandate to buy insurance be delayed for a year like the mandate for businesses has been?

Fair question. And it has an obvious answer (more on this in a minute, but in short, delay=death) that for some reason a nervous Sebelius could only dance around and Stewart acted like he’d never heard of.

When she gave tepid or partial answers—like, the employer mandate isn’t as big a deal as the individual mandate because most businesses already provide insurance—he seemed unable to follow, and asked, “Am I a stupid man?”

Of course not, Jon, but, as you’ve said of Fox’s Gretchen Carlson, you’re playing one on TV.

The answer to his question is simple, and Stewart is surely acquainted with it: without the individual mandate, the whole thing collapses. That mandate is the ACA’s cornerstone; the employer mandate is a bunch of bricks. Delaying the individual mandate by a year is tantamount to killing it. (Which is why, of course, the Tea Party considers delay the next best thing to repealing or defunding Obamacare.)

From Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff: “The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, without an individual mandate, 11 million fewer people would gain coverage next year.” And those that do buy coverage would be the older and sicker people, which would cause premiums to spike and drive away the healthy even more.

“The individual mandate is a lynchpin policy, one that makes the rest of the Affordable Care Act work by bringing millions more people in the health-care system,” writes Kliff. “The employer mandate, by contrast, is more of an extra nudge, aimed at encouraging companies to keep doing something they already do right now.”

Sebelius had trouble saying this plainly, but just as some of her answers started to take shape, Stewart fell back on complaining that the ACA is a “market-based solution.” He wanted single-payer. Yeah, well, a lot of us do. But that train left the station years ago, and the train we’re riding now will wreck only if millions don’t sign up, especially millions of the young people that all too often laugh on cue at anything Stewart says.

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Like in his monologue at the end of the show: “I still don’t understand why individuals have to sign up and businesses don’t, because if the businesses—if she’s saying, ‘Well, they get a delay because that doesn’t matter anyway because they already give healthcare,’ then you think to yourself, ‘Fuck it, then why do they have to sign up at all?’ But then I think to myself, ‘Well, maybe she’s just lying to me.’ ”

Clearly, someone needs to more forcefully explain this all to Jon. Someone, other than Bill Clinton, who could get on The Daily Show, someone who’s out there campaigning anyway. Someone like… Bill de Blasio?

Leslie Savan writes on how the media is playing fast and loose with ideological labels on both sides of the NYC mayoral race.

The Normalization of Violence Against Black Women


Valarie (center) and Amy Carey (second right), sisters of Miriam Carey, the woman involved in the Capitol Hill shooting, address during a news conference outside their home in Brooklyn, October 4, 2013. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

The US House of Representatives applauded the death of Miriam Carey before they knew who she was. They didn’t know about her postpartum depression, or that she talked about “wack men” on Facebook, or that she had been fired from a job last year, or that she lived in Connecticut or that she had been called a great mother. They simply applauded the unpaid work of the DC police in shooting and killing her.

Carey caused a panic last Thursday when she allegedly attempted to ram her vehicle through the White House barricades. Early reports were that a shooter was on the loose, giving everyone paying attention flashbacks to just a few weeks ago and the Navy Yard shooting. But early reports are almost always unreliable, and we eventually learned that Carey was not a shooter, did not have a gun, had her 1-year-old child in the car with her and was shot as she stepped out of the vehicle. This is what our Congress stood up for and clapped.

In the aftermath, with more facts at their disposal, has there been any great sense of remorse? Does the House regret that standing ovation? Put another way: has finding out that the police shot an unarmed black mother changed anyone’s perception of this fatal incident?

It should, but by and large, it won’t. This is America. Violence against black women is routine and unchecked.

That’s why Marissa Alexander finds herself in prison.* Last year, Alexander was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm and under Florida’s mandatory minimum laws sentenced to twenty years in prison after firing a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband. Her case gained widespread national attention during the George Zimmerman trial, as the now infamous Stand Your Ground law came under intense scrutiny. Alexander had attempted to have her case dismissed under Stand Your Ground, claiming her right to protect herself from a man who had repeatedly beat her, but was unsuccessful. Through appeal, Alexander has been granted a new trial, but what reason does she or her supporters have to be optimistic? The law failed to protect her before, and as Kiese Laymon points out, “The new trial is still going to have new American jurors, a new American judge, new American lawyers determining [her] black womanly right to fear.”

And still, being convicted once again may be the best luck Alexander can hope for. At the very least, she can expect to escape with her life. Far too often, the violence against black women turns deadly. Islan Nettles knows. In August of this year, Nettles, a Harlem resident and transgender woman, was attacked and beat to death while standing on the corner of W. 148th St. and Frederick Douglas Boulevard. She was with a group of friends when several men walked by, among them 20-year-old Paris Wilson, who allegedly started cursing and taunting them with homophobic slurs. Nettles and Wilson exchanged words before Wilson allegedly punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground, and then continued beating her to the point of unconsciousness. She arrived to the hospital brain dead, her mother describing the horrific scene by saying “half of [her] baby’s [was] brain missing.” Wilson was arrested for misdemeanor assault.

When the House stood and applauded the death of Miriam Carey, did they consider of any of this?

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Keep in mind this is the same Congress willing to commit its own violence against black women with the current government shutdown. As Brittney Cooper put it at Salon: “One of the programs most immediately affected by the shutdown is the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides vouchers for food and infant formula. The program can be sustained at the state level through the month of October, but will jeopardize the lives of 8.9 million people if the federal government doesn’t get its act together. The program disproportionately serves working-class women of color.” And according to The New York Times, in the effort to expand healthcare coverage under Obamacare, two-thirds of poor black and single mothers will be left out because they live in states under Republican control—Republicans who have decided it’s best for their states to not participate in the expansion of Medicaid. To take food out of people’s mouths and deny them healthcare is an insidious form of violence, but because it’s happening to black women, there is no national outrage. We would rather hem and haw about war memorials not being open to veterans.

The violence takes many forms, but this is consistent: black women suffer and little is done about it. It is exacted with no regard for black women’s humanity. It is simply the way things are.

(*Full disclosure: I am currently participating in a campaign aimed at freeing Marissa Alexander.)

Rick Perlstein previously blogged about the culture of fear that contributed to the killing of Miriam Carey.

Karzai Lashes Out Over Civilian Deaths

US Marines observe an area from a school building during a patrol at a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

No wonder President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is threatening to blow up the entire US-Afghan security relationship.

Perhaps your attention has moved elsewhere, as it has for the vast majority of Americans, but people—civilians and military personnel are still dying apace in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which entered its thirteenth year yesterday. Earlier this month, The Nation presented a detailed compilation and analysis of civilian deaths caused by US and NATO forces since 2001, by this reporter and Nick Turse. Civilians are still dying: in early September, for instance, an American drone strike in Kunar Province killed as many as sixteen people, many of them women and children.

Yesterday, asked about the possibility of a continuing American presence in Afghanistan after 2014, Karzai told the BBC that Americans and their allies continue to cause needless suffering among Afghan civilians:

“The worsening of relations began in 2005 where we saw the first incidents of civilian casualties, where we saw that the war on terror was not conducted where it should have been.”

According to the BBC, which also provided video of the Karzai interview:

Mr Karzai said the war should have been conducted “in the sanctuaries, in the training grounds beyond Afghanistan, rather than that which the US and NATO forces were conducting operations in Afghan villages, causing harm to Afghan people.”

As for the United States staying in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Karzai said:

“If the agreement doesn’t suit us then of course they can leave. The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes. If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them then naturally we will go separate ways.”

Of course, in part Karzai is bluffing, because Afghanistan needs the United States indefinitely to prop up the weak and corrupt government in Kabul, even after Karzai leaves office next year. But, as in Iraq—when the Obama administration tried and failed to negotiate a semi-permanent American role there—the United States could very well find itself kicked out of Afghanistan unceremoniously if no accord is reached. Karzai is demanding that the United States formally make Afghanistan an ally, thus requiring the United States to come to its defense if and when it is attacked. He also insists that the United States halt all efforts to track down Al Qaeda elements that still remain inside Afghanistan, because those raids, by US Special Forces units, and drone attacks kill civilians. (Only a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives still remain inside Afghanistan.)

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The Obama administration has rejected both Karzai demands, and it has suggested that it is willing to go with the previously unthinkable “zero option,” i.e., no US forces, after 2014, according to The New York Times:

American officials have balked at both proposals. They have said they would cut off talks if substantial progress was not made in the coming weeks and begin preparing for what is known as the zero option: a complete withdrawal.

Last July, the Times reported that Obama—frustrated with the Afghanistan talks—was indeed ready to go with the zero option, even though it was viewed as a catastrophe by American military and security officials:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Perhaps thinking of the recent raids into Libya and Somalia, where the United States has no combat troops, Obama seemingly threatened Karzai with the idea that the United States will pursue its security goals in Afghanistan even without an accord. Said Obama:

“If we can’t [get an agreement], we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after Al Qaeda we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.”

Of course, the only real solution in Afghanistan is not more war but a peace accord that brings the Taliban and its allies into a political agreement with a new, rebalanced government in Kabul that gives additional weight to Pashtun elements of the country. Such an accord would have to be supported by both Pakistan and India, which have long fought a proxy war on Afghan soil, and by Iran. Pakistan, which supports the Taliban, has provided signals recently that it might be willing to strike a deal with the government in Afghanistan, and Pakistan and India are talking to each other again, though tensions remain high between those two nuclear-armed powers.

Check out The Nation’s interactive database of civilian fatalities in Afghanistan from 2001–12.

Mitch McConnell’s Moneyocracy


Senate Minority Leader Addison “Mitch” McConnell of Kentucky. (AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

For a man who has spent his entire career preaching the gospel of lower taxes, it’s astounding how much Mitch McConnell wants your money.

Sen. McConnell’s zeal is impressive, but not surprising. He’s about to enter the most difficult election of his career—and he’s going to need every last penny.

To his right, he faces Matt Bevin—a conservative millionaire flush with the support of the tea party. To his left, he faces Alison Lundergan Grimes—a popular secretary of state with deep family ties to Kentucky. The experts currently call their race a toss-up.

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So, while McConnell already has an imposing $9.5 million cash on hand, it’s not enough in a race that some predict could cost as much $100 million. And now, astonishingly, he’s turning to the Supreme Court to get it.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

California Just Got a Little Safer for Undocumented Residents


California Governor Jerry Brown (D) after signing AB60, which facilitates driver's licences to undocumented immigrants, during ceremonies in Los Angeles on October 3, 2013.  This is one of several recent laws passed of late by the California State Legislature that favor immigrants. (Reuters/Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti/Handout via Reuters)

California is home to more undocumented immigrants than any other state—and a lot of those estimated 2.5 million people will likely benefit from a number of sweeping bills that have recently been signed by Governor Jerry Brown.

Some of the individual pieces of legislation have been weakened since they were first introduced, but will nevertheless improve conditions for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. While the Obama administration continues its record setting deportations, and Congress is unwilling to pass comprehensive reform, these bills will positively impact undocumented communities.

The Trust Act: The federal government mandates that local jails and prisons share fingerprints with immigration authorities in order to identify people thought to threats to public safety. But under the program, called Secure Communities, people who have never even been accused of committing a crime have been caught in the dragnet. The Trust Act now ensures that only immigrants who have not accused or convicted of a serious offense will now be handed over to immigration authorities for deportation.

The California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights: Most of the state’s domestic workers are immigrants, and all had few protections under the law. This bill, which expires in three years unless it is renewed by lawmakers, makes it so that overtime kicks in after 9 hours of work per day, or 45 hours of work per week.

Driving privileges: Starting next year (or as late as 2015), an estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants will be eligible to apply for a driver’s license. The license will be marked to indicate status, but Assembly Bill 60 will allow drivers to operate vehicles under the law, and obtain car insurance.

Practicing the law: 36-year-old Sergio Garcia applied for a Green Card 19 years ago—and has been waiting for adjustment status ever since. In that time, he finished school, took and passed the bar exam, but was prohibited from practicing law because of his status. But now, thanks to Assembly Bill 24, Garcia and others like him can be admitted to the bar.

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Cutting back on extortion and retaliation: Nearly ten percent of California’s workforce is undocumented—and two bills ensure workers aren’t threatened because of their status. Assembly Bill 524 recognizes the threat posed by revealing a person’s real or imagined status as extortion. Senate Bill 666 expands existing protections for immigrant workers by suspending or repealing an employer’s licenses for retaliating against an undocumented whistleblower that files a complaint about sexual harassment or other unsafe working conditions.

Governor Brown signed additional bills to that will help undocumented students, as well as U.S. citizen students whose parents have been deported, as well as bills that will regulate who can profit from immigrants applying for federal immigration programs. Brown has said that California is now "forging ahead." That's made easier by the fact that the House and Senate are controlled by Democrats. California has set a new standard for undocumented immigrants. It's now up to other states to follow. 

Dave Zirin looks at poor immigrants effected by MLB player Alex Rodriguez's slum apartment buildings.

Domestic Violence Shelters Struggle to Stay Open During Shutdown


A victim of domestic violence is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, California, on August 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Consider the government shutdown an extension of the GOP’s efforts to cut essential services to American women and their families. Now in its eighth day, the government shutdown has already kicked 7,000 children out of Head Start, and endangered 9 million women and children on WIC, including 2,000 newborns in Arkansas that may not receive nutritional formula if the shutdown persists.

Add women fleeing domestic violence and sexual assault to the list of vulnerable populations that the shutdown puts at greater risk. On Friday, a domestic violence program in DC called Survivors and Advocates For Empowerment with an intake center just blocks from the Capitol announced that it needed to raise $19,000 in a week in order to provide shelter, emergency lock changes at victims’ homes, staff for the hotline and court advocates during the shutdown.

That’s because the federal agencies that administer funding for domestic violence programs have ceased operations, cutting shelters’ access to cash and to the Grants Management System that they use to allocate resources and communicate with grant managers. Typically, shelters are reimbursed at the end of the month for the services they provided; any of September’s expenses not paid out last week will remain on the books until Congress passes a budget resolution. Without federal funds, shelters are dependent on state governments and private donors, and many won’t be able to stretch this money past the next payroll.

“We’re two weeks from programs closing their doors,” said Cindy Southworth, vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. At least 2,000 shelters nationwide rely on funds from the Family Violence Prevention Services Act, as well as the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act. As Bryce Covert reported at ThinkProgress, shelters in rural areas and small programs without a strong donor base will be the first forced to cut services.

In Solano County, California, the LIFT3 Support Group and Domestic Violence Shelter is taking a “scattered furlough” approach in order to keep the program open, asking staff to take one day off a week. The Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, which provides crisis intervention, risk assessment and safety planning for battered women, will furlough its only staff member if it does not receive a reimbursement due from the Office on Violence Against Women. In Jasper, Texas, the Piney Woods Safe House lost 50 percent of its funding because of the shutdown. “Our day-to-day functions were about to change drastically,” said Wanda Whitcomb, the director of the ten-bed facility, before the community stepped in to save the shelter. “They knew how important what we do is.”

The shutdown squeezes shelters on Indian reservations particularly tightly, since federal funds often account for a greater portion of their operating budgets. These are vital programs: about 40 percent of Native American women face domestic violence, a higher rate than any other group. This isn’t the first time Republican obstructionism has hurt Native American women, either. For a year and a half, Republicans in Congress refused to reauthorize VAWA, in part because it expanded the power of tribal authorities to prosecute non-Native abusers.

The White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, which serves the Rosebud Reservation and surrounding communities in South Dakota, has lost 90 percent of its funding because of the shutdown, according to executive director Janet Routzen. “We don’t have any reserve funding. [The shutdown] affects everything that we do,” Routzen said. The Society’s donor base dried up during the recession, and with unemployment on the reservation at 85 percent, according to Routzen, it can’t rely on community support. Routzen’s employees, who make little more than minimum wage under normal circumstances, told her they plan to work without pay if the funding has not been restored by the next pay cycle. The shelter is at capacity with eleven women and twenty children; she turned away at least four victims in the past week.

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Even before the shutdown, domestic violence programs across the country were both overfull and barely getting by financially. State and city governments cut funding for programs in almost 80 percent of states from 2011 to 2012, and nearly all states reported decreases in private donations. Meanwhile, more than half of shelters reported that abuse grew more violent during the economic downturn, and 45 percent of women said they stayed with their abuser longer for economic reasons. Sequestration ratcheted budgets still tighter, forcing programs to cut services to more than 400,000 women.

“There’s a domino effect,” Southworth said. “Victims running for their lives do not have a lot of money at their disposal anyway, and may also be impacted by [cuts to] WIC and food stamps.” While domestic abuse crosses all income levels, women with fewer financial resources to begin with are particularly in need of shelter, because they cannot afford other accommodations. As the shutdown drags on, and with little chance that a budget deal will lift the sequester cuts, things may only get worse for victims. “They’re going to go from endangered, to endangered and in poverty,” said Southworth.

Still, Southworth emphasized that shelters are doing everything they can to serve women and their children in spite of the shutdown—even if that means employees working without pay, as the staff of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society have offered. She worries that if victims think shelters have closed, they won’t get themselves out of dangerous situations. “We want to get the message out that we’re keeping our doors open—on a shoestring, but still open.”

Read Patricia Williams’s latest column on women and self-exploitation.

Giant Killer Robots and Other Safeguards of Democracy


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