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Clinton Slams Obama on Foreign Policy, Echoing the Neocons and the Far Right

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

For months, Christie Watch has chronicled Hillary Clinton’s hawkish, even neoconservative-influenced views on foreign policy. During her tenure as secretary of state, from the inside, she argued consistently—usually in alliance with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—for polices that were almost universally more hawkish than President Obama seemed to favor, sometimes succeeding in getting her way and sometimes not. She backed the 2009 escalation of the war in Afghanistan, argued for vastly increased US military aid to the insurgents in Syria, and was the leading administration advocate for forcible regime change in Libya. More recently, as reported by Bob Dreyfuss’s Nation blog, she broke with the Obama administration’s Iran policy, joining Israel’s Likud government and neoconservatives in the United States in supporting a zero-enrichment policy aimed at shutting down production of non–weapons grade uranium enriched to just 5 percent.

But now, with her interview in The Atlantic with Jeffrey Goldberg, a staunch advocate for Israel and a neocon fellow traveler, she’s thrown down the gauntlet, openly ridiculing Obama’s cautious approach to world affairs. For those who’ve followed her career, at least since the 1990s, it seems to be a case of Clinton being Clinton, allowing her natural proclivity for hawkishness in foreign affairs to mingle with her political opportunism. Not wishing to let herself be outflanked on the right by hawks—who’ll rev up the Benghazi non-scandal against her in 2016 and who are conducting a nationwide propaganda campaign to blame Obama’s judicious caution for the world’s ills—Clinton has made a fateful decision to go on the offensive. In so doing, she’ll open the door for even harsher Republican criticism, starting a race to the bottom—or to the far right—on foreign policy. Just wait until 2016.

Clinton has already polarized the commentariat, with some liberals delivering critiques of her anti-Obama broadsides, while conservatives are both gleefully defending her, while adding that, of course, she doesn’t go far enough. The New York Times, in its competently written account of Clinton’s slow-moving but accelerating break with Obama, notes that with the interview in The Atlantic, “the veneer shattered.” Most egregiously, she used a single offhand comment by President Obama—“don’t do stupid stuff”—to portray that as the driving principle of Obama’s foreign policy. Said Clinton, in the Atlantic interview: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” (As Mike Allen of Politico points out, the actual quote from Obama was “don’t do stupid shit.” Allen also compiles a useful account of how the phrase emerged.) Even more idiotically, the New York Post headlines its account “Hillary slams Obama for ‘stupid’ foreign policies.”

In fact, the phrase “don’t do stupid shit” itself is a good one, since it distinguishes President Obama from his predecessor, who in fact did do a lot of stupid shit, again and again. But it’s hardly the be-all and end-all of Obama’s foreign policy. In his West Point speech in May, Obama laid out a carefully conceived view of how the United States should approach the world, in which he emphasized that military action ought to be used as a last resort, with politics and diplomacy first. It’s a view that Obama sometimes forgets, as in the current bombing campaign in Iraq, but it’s the right idea. Don’t expect Clinton to echo it.

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In terms of substance, if you don’t have time to read the whole interview, Clinton repeats her defense of zero-enrichment in Iran, unequivocally supports Israel in its over-zealous, blitzkrieg-like attack on Gaza, asserts that the United States ought to have backed the supposedly moderate factions of the rebels in Syria (which, she argues unconvincingly, would have prevented the rise of the Islamic State radicals), portrays the United States as engaged in a global war against unified jihadists (in fact, the jihadists are much more fragmented and far less dangerous than she implies), and so on. On Iran, she says:

I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out. So, little or no enrichment has always been my position.

In an August 12 piece in Politico, Mike Allen notes that the president and Clinton will be together during Obama’s vacation. The headline: “Hillary Clinton to party with President Obama.” And Allen notes, wryly, “This could be awkward.”

 

Read Next: Dogged by protests and scandal, Christie forges ahead for 2016.

The Death of Michael Brown and the Search for Justice in Black America

Aaron Coleman, left, joins other protesters marching in Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings)

Last Thursday, Theodore Wafer was found guilty of second-degree murder for shooting and killing Renisha McBride, the 19-year-old woman who arrived on Wafer’s porch after a car accident the night of November 2, 2013. The verdict came as a surprise. Having witnessed a jury acquit George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, and another jury do the same for Michael Dunn in the killing of Jordan Davis (though Dunn was convicted on other charges that will lead to prison time), the idea that anyone would be held responsible for killing a young black person seemed like a fairy tale. It was a concept that only existed in the far reaches of the imagination.

Wafer will be sentenced on August 20 and could spend the rest of his life in prison. It’s what counts for justice in our current system. But that Wafer will likely die behind bars offers little solace, knowing that this fact will not prevent future Renisha McBrides from suffering fates similar to hers. For a moment, though, his guilty verdict offered a bit of relief.

That relief was short-lived. On Saturday, August 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, by a local police officer whose identity has not been released. Brown was walking with a friend, 22-year-old Dorian Johnson, on his way to his grandmother’s residence in a nearby apartment complex. In an interview with MSNBC, Johnson says the two were walking in the street when a police car approached and the as-yet-unidentified officer instructed them to “get the fuck onto the sidewalk.” They told the officer they were almost at their destination and would be out of the street in a minute. Johnson says at that point the officer slammed his brake, backed up and asked, “What’d you say?” while opening his car door and attempting to get out. The door hit Brown and then closed. Johnson says the officer then grabbed Brown by the neck.

He continues: “They’re not wrestling so much as [the officer’s] arm went from [Brown’s] throat to now clenched on his shirt. It’s like tug of war. He’s trying to pull him in. He’s pulling away, that’s when I heard, ‘I’m gonna shoot you.’”

According to Johnson, the first shot followed not too long after. He and Brown both started running, Johnson ducking behind a nearby parked car and Brown continued past him. The officer fired a second shot, this one hitting Brown in the back. Johnson says Brown then turned around with his hands in the air and said “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” The officer ignored Brown’s words and fired several more shots.

Parts of Johnson’s version of the story are backed up by another eyewitness, Piaget Crenshaw, who has said “They shot him, and he fell. He put his arms up to let them know he was compliant, and that he was unarmed. And they shot him twice more, and he fell to the ground and died.”

Johnson’s account of the shooting, as told to MSNBC reporter Trymaine Lee, differs from what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has told the press. “The genesis of this was a physical confrontation,” he told CNN. He did not say what led to this confrontation, but asserted that Brown had physically assaulted the officer and a struggle over the weapon ensued. Brown was unarmed and the only casings recovered from the scene came from the officer’s gun.

The details are always in dispute, but the result is always the same: a young black person is dead. More parents are in mourning. Another community is enraged.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote, “Michael Brown didn’t get due process.” It’s worse than that. Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?

Justice for Renisha would have looked like Michael Brown being able to attend college. Justice for Trayvon would have looked like Renisha McBride getting the help she needed the night of her accident. Justice for Oscar Grant would have looked like Trayvon Martin making it home to finish watching the NBA All-Star game, Skittles and iced tea in tow. And so on, and so on. Justice should be the affirmation of our existence.

In the absence of such justice, we take to the streets. We protest, we hold vigils and, yes, we riot. What options are left? Rioting/looting (what some would call rebellion) may not provide answers or justice. But what to do with the anger in the meantime? We are told to stay calm, but calm has not delivered justice either. Do we wait for the FBI to investigate? I guess, but what to do in the meantime, as the images coming from Ferguson echo Watts in 1965? We’re told not to tear up our own communities, when time and time again we’re reminded that they don’t belong to us. Deaths like Michael Brown’s tell us we don’t belong here. What, then?

Counting the bodies is draining. With every black life we lose, we end up saying the same things. We plead for our humanity to be recognized. We pray for the lives of our young people. We remind everyone of our history. And then another black person dies.

Theodore Wafer’s guilty verdict allowed us to breathe easy for a second, but the killing of Michael Brown sucked all the oxygen right back out of the room (or whatever was left after learning about Eric Garner. And John Crawford. And…). It’s apparently a feature of what it means to be black in America: running from tragedy to tragedy, never having a moment to stop and catch your breath.

 

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‘We Tortured Some Folks’

Tom Tomorrow

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Jezebel’s Porn Problem and the Price of Social Media

Keyboard

(Shutterstock)

Yesterday the staff of Jezebel revealed that they and their readers have, for the past several months, been deluged by violent rape GIFs courtesy of trollish commenters. Worse, they said, the higher-ups at Gawker Media, Jezebel’s owner, refuse to do anything about it.

“The images arrive in a barrage, and the only way to get rid of them from the website is if a staffer individually dismisses the comments and manually bans the commenter,” Jezebel’s staff wrote in a piece posted on the site. But because the commenter accounts are untraceable and anonymous, the trolls just set up new ones. “It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra,” they wrote.

They’ve asked about tools that would allow them to record—and thus ban—IP addresses, which would make it harder to create multiple fake accounts from the same computer. But nothing is happening. Further, they wrote, while new moderation tools are supposedly being developed, “change is not coming fast enough. This has been going on for months, and it’s impacting our ability to do our jobs.”

They are not alone. On Sunday, The Guardian’s reader editor published a long piece on the “the online abuse that follows any article on women’s issues,” describing how moderators get bogged down weeding out offensive or off-topic comments. “Perhaps it is time to assess whether anonymity should be an option rather than the default position,” wrote the editor, Chris Elliott. “While it has always been argued that commenters build an identity around their pseudonym, those who express opinions under their own name carry more authority and are obviously more careful about what they say.”

Rethinking online anonymity is a good idea. But we also need to rethink the mandatory social media interaction increasingly being demanded of journalists. At the very least, we should acknowledge that the burdens placed on men and women in the industry are unequal.

Obviously, there are women who love the interactive side of contemporary journalism, who thrive on Twitter and Tumblr, do battle in comments sections and are fine letting people they don’t know follow them on Instagram. But those who don’t love it don’t have much of a choice. If you want to be a journalist today, maintaining a public persona accessible to random strangers is increasingly part of the job.

Consider the New York Times Innovation Report, a panicky internal document leaked to Buzzfeed in May. It shows a newspaper leadership that has lost confidence in its industry and is eager to hop on the “disruption” bandwagon, somehow convinced that it needs to be more like Vox, The Huffington Post and even First Look Media, despite the fact that the latter still hasn’t fully launched. There are lots of suggestions in the report, some of them perfectly sensible, but one takeaway is that even the most serious journalists will now be judged according to their facility with social media and their talent for self-promotion.

At one point, the report criticizes Andrea Elliott for taking two days to tweet about her amazing “Invisible Child” series, a five-part project, over a year in the making, about a 12-year-old homeless girl named Dasani and her family. By contrast, it praises the reporters and writers who engage with readers: “KJ Dell’Antonia, our Motherlode blogger, spends about an hour every day replying to commenters. Gina Kolata writes back to all readers who email her. Chris Chivers makes time, even in war zones, to manage social accounts on eight different platforms.”

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One needn’t knock the initiative of writers who are good at social media—particularly those like Chivers who are also great, intrepid reporters—to note that sometimes a journalist has to choose between spending time on Twitter and spending time immersing herself in a real-world drama. We already know that the requirements of brand-building are an enormous time-suck for the permalancer class, but now even those who land a full-time job at the most prestigious media company in the world have extra audience outreach responsibilities. And if it’s no longer enough for a journalist to do intensive reporting and write great stories, that has particular implications for women, who increasingly must open themselves to a constant pelting of personal abuse, from the snide to the violently pornographic, as the cost of a career in media.

I don’t know if there’s any way out of this, short of a drastic change in the architecture of social media itself. But we’re demanding a punishing new form of emotional labor from women in journalism, and we should recognize it.

 

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Washington’s Sketchy Pro-Israel/Anti-Iran Camp

FDD conference

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer discusses Iran with Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, at the group's summit in April. (Screengrab: Foundation for Defense of Democracies/YouTube)

My colleague Eli Clifton has a new piece up at Salon about the pro-sanctions group United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) and its somewhat murky links to a billionaire precious-metals investor named Thomas Kaplan. I suggest everyone check it out: it’s a fascinating tale of colliding interests; namely, that the head of UANI also helms ventures with the billionaire that stand to, by its own account, make a lot of money in the case of instability in the Middle East—up to and including “confrontation” with Iran.

Eli mentions in the course of his reporting a recent New York Times article that describes an intervention by the Justice Department to protect information held by UANI from being disclosed in court. There’re a lot of granular details about the case—a defamation suit by Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate whose company UANI accused of being “frontmen for the illicit activities of the Iranian regime”—but for our purposes here the important parts revolve around UANI’s ties to Israel. The suit alleges that UANI dispatched an Israeli businessman (otherwise unconnected to UANI) in order to broker a resolution to the dispute over the alleged defamation, and raises suspicions that Meir Dagan, a former Israeli spy chief and UANI advisory board member, provided information to the group about Restis’s company.

Now, UANI has former officials from a host of countries on its advisory board, but an observer would need to be willfully blind to miss the consistent pattern among pro-sanctions hardliners in Washington: most, if not all, align with DC’s right-leaning pro-Israel camp. Indeed, one need only listen to members of Congress raise Israel’s security as they vie to take the toughest positions on sanctions. Despite its diversity, UANI delivers on this front, with staunch Israel supporters, such as Joseph Lieberman, on its board, and with its staff drawn from and moving among pro-Israel activist and media circles.

One of the most active and most hardline groups on Iran, of course, is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), whose influence Eli and I discussed at length in our recent Nation feature. (UANI and FDD officials have appeared together at events sponsored by dedicated pro-Israel groups.) The neoconservative think tank is certainly no exception to the pro-Israel bent of Iran hawks in DC. But even the extent to which the group serves as a pro-Israel outfit has been obscured in the course of its thirteen-year history.

FDD’s origin myth is, in fact, just that: a myth. Today the group’s website proclaims, “FDD was founded shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West.” But according to its application for tax-exempt nonprofit status, FDD was “incorporated or formed” on April 24, 2001—five months before the September 11 attacks.

The FDD application also homes in on a narrower focus than its stated purpose today, which is “to promote pluralism, defend democratic values and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism.” Instead, the group was founded to concentrate almost solely on Israel advocacy. “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Inc. (‘FDD’) was incorporated in New York on April 24, 2001, as EMET: An Educational Initiative, Inc. (‘EMET’),” says the application, which is dated January 30, 2002. (Emet is Hebrew for “truth.”) “The initial purpose of EMET was to provide education meant to enhance Israel’s image in North America and the public’s understanding of issues affecting Israeli-Arab relations.”

“These goals continue as part of FDD’s purpose,” the application says. It continues:

As a result of the terrorist attacks on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the Board of Directors determined that EMET’s mission should be expanded. The Board has recognized the sad fact that Israel is no longer the only democracy in the world facing the scourge of terrorism.

The application goes on to list things the FDD board “believes.” Among the five bullet points are two focused exclusively on Israel. One states, “The way to achieve peace in the Middle East is not by compromising Israel’s existence as the only democracy in the region, but rather by defeating terrorism.” Defending Israel, in other words, remained central to FDD’s work, despite the expanding mission.

Indeed, FDD has a disproportionate focus on Iran—of twenty-one officials and experts listed on its website, more than half are described as Iran specialists of one sort or another—which, as I’ve said before, is an Israel issue in Washington. And looking at other groups working intently on Iran, as described by Eli and myself in our feature, one needs not look very hard to find the Israel angle: one of the groups we spent a great deal of time on was the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, America’s pre-eminent pro-Israel organization.

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This is not to say all pro-Israel groups oppose diplomacy with Iran, of course: two of Washington’s most astute pro-diplomacy groups, Americans for Peace Now and J Street, hail from the liberal pro-Israel camp. But the center of gravity of Israel advocacy trends right, and many of these groups and their staffs have staked out aggressive pro-sanctions or outright hawkish pro-war positions.

Pro-Israel advocates recoil at the notion that they played a major role in the build-up to the Iraq war. But if diplomacy with Iran fails due to measures pushed by these groups, a confrontation over its nuclear program becomes all the more likely. With all their activism against negotiations and compromise, it won’t be difficult to draw a line from pro-Israel groups like FDD and deeply Israel-linked groups like UANI to the potential conflict.

 

Read Next: How Israel’s shriveling peace camp failed the public

Could Stronger Unions Make China More Democratic?

Han Dongfang

Chinese Labor Activist Han Dongfang at his studio in Hong Kong (Reuters/Kin Cheung)

Han Dongfang, a longtime Chinese labor activist, has some ideas about democracy in China. But unlike most of the liberal Western critics and prominent exiled dissidents, Han is not focused on freeing Tibet, street rallies for human rights, or freedom of the press—though he understands that all those issues are vital to the debate on China’s political future. He thinks democracy begins not by casting a ballot for far-away political leaders, but electing your shop steward. And the interesting part is that the foundation for this emerging in workplaces across the nation that is defining, for better or worse, our global economy.

As an early leader of one of China’s first independent trade union movements and a veteran of the Tiananmen Square uprising, Han now heads China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong–based labor advocacy and research organization group. Speaking with me on a recent visit to New York, he explained how he sees organized labor as a unique nesting ground for a democratic polity in the new China.

He draws from the past quarter-century of observing China’s capitalist transition, the breakneck industrial development and ferocious pace of urbanization, along with the more recent opening to neoliberal global trade regimes and digital technology. Yet he’s also informed by an older legacy of trade unionism and workplace-justice activism going back to the emergence of democratic socialism in Europe. If you graft the trendlines of the Industrial Revolution onto China’s economic trajectory over the past generation, you start to see the basis for comparison between two histories of political and economic transformation. Han’s ideal is to use collective bargaining and industrial relations as a vehicle for restructuring power in the workplace. And perhaps, he says, China can develop independent trade unions that could sow new forms of social and economic citizenship, as they did in Germany and Sweden.

It may sound naive, but there’s overall more political space for labor unrest in China today than there is for any other form of social conflict. Anything smacking of political insurgency or harsh criticism of the one-party state is likely to meet with some degree of suppression or censorship.

But in the past few months alone, China has seen scores of wildcat strikes, demonstrations, periodic riots and even the occasional boss taken hostage. The government generally treats this strife as part of the dynamics of China’s astronomical growth. And the labor market is, in a way, akin to the country’s churning consumer market: the state knows it cannot control every aspect of Chinese society and is willing to allow a measure of market “freedom” as a self-regulating social ecosystem. Fostering commercial exchange keeps workers busy and fed and keeps factories humming. On the factory floor a parallel balancing of interests plays out, between workers—who, at established firms, generally belong to the government-run union—and employers—who, like their Western counterparts, want to keep profits flowing above all else. Manufacturing workers typically have some form of labor contract and are hooked into a national, employer-funded social insurance system, at least in theory. The system works if labor has enough autonomy to exert some control over their working conditions, through negotiation with bosses or bringing legal complaints. That doesn’t happen nearly enough. So CLB seeks to equip workers with collective bargaining skills and legal savvy to represent themselves to their employers and the government.

According to Han, the first step toward empowering the workforce is to wrest power from the bosses and the official state-run union.

“Now the biggest problem with the unions in China is that the factory unions are completely controlled by employers,” Han says. His organization seeks to “create some formula for trade union reform and collective bargaining in workplaces…establish a peaceful means of collective bargaining…and at the same time, through the collective bargaining process, we can encourage the workers to elect the factory representatives into the factory union, and therefore take away the employer control over the factory union.”

Now that China in capitalist transformation has entwined neoliberal economic cycles with modified authoritarianism and a creaky welfare state, workers are being vastly exploited by their bosses and constrained politically by the regime. Yet Han believes the union structure still offers an opening for labor representation. Advocates need to know the right pressure points in the triangular relationship among the state and official union, management, corporate power structure and rank-and-file—and they must understand how to use their leverage.

Under China’s reformed market economy, the government strives to maintain stability and contain social unrest, he says, so “they don’t want the labor relationship to become a political drama.” Ultimately, under a free enterprise-based workplace, particularly in the private sector, the government cannot control corporations nor can they control workers, or enforce labor laws effectively. Since the locals of the official All-China Trade Union Federation tend to be ineffective and aligned with management, he continues, “workers are always unhappy.… there’s no collective bargaining mechanism. The natural reaction is to strike.”

Labor protests spring up fairly regularly, ranging in size from a local union rebellion at a single Walmart branch, to the 30,000-strong Yue Yuen shoe factory strike earlier this year. The problem is that once workers down their tools, he says, “no one knows how to bargain.” CLB trains workplace organizers and legal advocates “to create a rational part, instill the self-confidence and balance [in the workplace, and] pair it with a strong-enough militancy, the willingness to go on strike. So it’s all about balance.” He notes that officials have an interest in rooting out political and business corruption, too, so if populism acts as a check on corporate abuse, the party indirectly benefits.

Han sees the strike as an effective tool for airing grievances, but only if channeled through a collective bargaining structure that engages employers and workers as equal parties. “If you look around the world, the strike is a natural tool for workers,” he says. But in the long run, “what is not necessarily natural is bargaining skills, and organized power, rather than massive, wildcat power… That is more important for a trade union movement than chaos.”

Han isn’t gunning for class warfare; he’s trying to map out a way to build up labor power so workers can get what they want and are entitled to: a decent livelihood, safe working conditions

 

and control over the terms of their employment. Han accepts that more radical left labor scholars and activists will dismiss this as an overly conciliatory stance that fails to challenge the ideologies of neoliberalism or the fundamental structures of the country’s increasingly aggressive capitalism.

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But having lived through the heaviest period of unrest in contemporary Chinese history, Han is resigned to the kind of utilitarian advocacy that prioritizes workers’ basic entitlements. And that starts with the simple act of casting a ballot for a local union representative.

“This is a very, very important, solid democratic practice: making democracy first in people’s daily work and life, rather than first putting a banner there, giving you a piece of paper to vote, to elect the premier.… Before you have the right to vote for president, why not go first to vote for your own representative in the workplace and practice this democracy in your daily life?”

To hear an audio version of this interview, tune in to tonight’s episode of Asia Pacific Forum at 9 pm ET on WBAI 99.5 FM New York.

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Congress Needs to Assert Checks and Balances on Any New Iraq Mission

Iraq

(AP Photo)

It is not a lack of sympathy with the historic and current circumstance of Iraq’s religious minorities—or of other persecuted peoples in that traumatized country—that leads some of the most humane and responsible members of Congress to say that President Obama must seek approval from the House and Senate before committing the United States military to a new Iraq mission.

Nor is it isolationism or pacifism that motivates most dissent.

Rather, it is a healthy respect for the complex geopolitics of the region combined with a regard for the wisdom of the system of checks and balances and the principles of advice and consent outlined in the US Constitution.

Consider the case of Barbara Lee.

Few members of the House of Representatives have a so long and distinguished a record of commitment to respecting and protecting the interests of vulnerable populations in distant lands than Lee, a California Democrat who has been deeply engaged in international human rights advocacy since her days as an aide to former Congressman Ron Dellums, D-California.

Since her election to Congress in 1998, Lee has been the essential author or co-author of major pieces of legislation dealing with international HIV/AIDS issues, including the measure that created the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria. She organized bipartisan coalitions to respond to genocide in Darfur.

She was a leader the effort to establish the position of special adviser for orphans and vulnerable children. She has served as a US representative to the United Nations. And she has argued, well and wisely, that the hard work of diplomacy, the provision of humanitarian aid, the steady support of international institutions and the recognition of distinct regional issues is invariably more likely to help the world’s most vulnerable peoples than war-making.

Of course Barbara Lee supports immediate and intensive efforts to provide vital aid to the Yazidi people, a religious minority facing harrowing threats from the militant forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Of course, she wants to aid and protect religious, cultural and ethnic minorities.

That is why she was one of the first members of the House to express support for “humanitarian efforts to prevent genocide in Iraq.”

Lee praises the president for announcing that “there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”

But she still expresses legitimate concern about “US mission creep in Iraq and escalation into a larger conflict, which I oppose.”

Within hours of President Obama’s announcement that, in addition to humanitarian efforts, he was authorizing military airstrikes on ISIS forces, Lee called for the president “to seek congressional authorization before any combat operations.”

“For too long, Congress has abdicated its Constitutional role in matters of war and peace,” she explained. “The President should come to Congress for authorization of any further military action in Iraq.”

Lee is not alone in w orrying about the threat of US mission creep in Iraq .

Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate for hunger relief and related humanitarian initiatives, warned with regard to the airstrikes ordered last week by the president, “These strikes do involve the United States directly in hostilities, regardless of how limited they are and regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian purpose involved. “

In July, the House voted overwhelmingly for a resolution written by McGovern, Lee and Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, which explicitly signaled opposition to any prolonged US military intervention in Iraq without congressional approval. “We made it very clear that we believe Congress has a significant constitutional role to play,” says McGovern, who explains, “When we bomb ISIS, which is a horrible group, we have to realize that we are heading down the path of choosing sides in an ancient religious and sectarian war inside Iraq. While choosing sides may be something Congress decides that it wants to support, it goes beyond the humanitarian mission of providing relief to civilians stranded on a mountain in imminent danger of dying of hunger and thirst. It goes beyond protecting our military and diplomatic personnel. I am concerned that we are already seeing these different missions blur into one in the press and in Congress. That is deeply troubling.”

Congressman John Garamendi, a California Democrat who has remained deeply involved with conflict resolution in the African region where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer, was quick to voice support for the “ongoing humanitarian mission of airdropping food and water” into Iraq. But he added, “I am seriously concerned that these targeted strikes may become a slippery slope.”

Garamendi says, “Congress needs greater clarity on the objectives of this expanding action.”

That clarity will benefit not just Congress but President Obama.

Even close allies of the president, such as Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the number-two Democrat in the Senate, insist that escalation “is not in the cards.”

“We cannot send the troops, we must not send the troops,” Durbin argued on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Escalating it is not in the cards. Neither the American people nor Congress are in the business of wanting to escalate this conflict beyond where it is today. I think the President’s made it clear this is a limited strike. He has, I believe, most Congressional support for that at this moment. To go beyond is really going to be a challenge.”

Arizona Senator John McCain and his neoconservative allies take a different view, as do some liberal interventionists. But the necessity of congressional debate is about more than partisanship and ideology. All sides should recognize not just the requirement of congressional consent but the value of the process.

There is a mistaken notion that the system of checks and balances threatens the authority of the presidency. In fact, it can, and often does, provide necessary definition for a commander in chief. When a president seeks the advice and consent of Congress for military intervention, the process itself conveys authority—along with a broad understanding of the mission that is being proposed.

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This is as the founders of the American experiment intended, and that intent remains entirely appropriate. If a president proposes a fool’s mission, Congress should be able to prevent him from embarking upon it. If a president proposes a necessary mission, Congress can and in all likelihood will give approval—not always as quickly as the commander in chief would prefer, but on a timeline (and wi th parameters) that will balance executive urgency with legislative caution.

It is not a lack of conscience, or humanity, that inspires the demand that every president—be he a Democrat or she a Republican, be he a conservative or she a liberal—seek the approval of Congress before intervening militarily in a distant land. It a basic premise of the American experiment, as outlined in our Constitution and in our common sense of who we are and how we might best respond to a dangerous and difficult world.

 

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How Cash Assistance Could Help Pregnant Women Break Free From Abusive Relationships

Pregnant woman

(Reuters/Regis Duvignau)

Say you’re expecting your first child and struggling financially. You need cash assistance, so you apply through the state’s welfare program for low-income families. If you live in California, how far along you are in your pregnancy can determine whether you’re a candidate. Three months or fewer from your delivery date (or already parenting other kids) and you could be eligible immediately. But any earlier and you’re insufficiently in the family way to qualify for this family program. So you wait.

This wait can take an otherwise healthy pregnancy off course, advocates in California say, so they’re pushing for a law that would move the CalWORKs eligibility period up from the third to the second trimester. This week, they’ll find out whether legislators think state coffers can support the change, which wouldn’t extend the amount of time a family receives the benefit but would start the clock earlier. The additional cost is expected to be around $7 million.

A broad range of groups is supporting the bill, called the Healthy Babies Act, from California Latinas for Reproductive Justice to the California Catholic Conference. But the loudest voice in the effort to get it passed has come from the domestic violence prevention community. Service providers and activists committed to the issue say the law would especially help people facing violence from an intimate partner.

“I realized I was getting a lot of calls from women that were pregnant,” Mariya Taher, a social worker with WOMAN, Inc., told me. She helps cover the San Francisco organization’s twenty-four-hour domestic violence support line and is working with bill author Assemblyman Mark Stone’s office to pass the bill.

According to Taher, the bill addresses two pressing issues facing the women she works with: Pregnancy is often a time when abuse starts or escalates. A Centers for Disease Control review of studies finds a possible association between unintended pregnancy and abuse that supports Taher’s observations. A 2005 CDC report found that homicide was a leading cause of traumatic death among pregnant women and new mothers, particularly those who are young or black.

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Advocates also say women stay often because they can’t see how else they’d survive. Taher says about a fourth of callers to the WOMAN, Inc. help line are surviving financial abuse, meaning someone is controlling their income, ruining their credit, not allowing them to work or otherwise keeping them dependent. For some, accessing the CalWORKs safety net means the difference between continuing to put their health and potentially their pregnancy at risk and being able to leave.

It’s all an interesting counterpoint to the debate earlier this summer about whether intact, married families are safer than those led by single parents. In June, an op-ed published on The Washington Post’s site argued that married, biological fathers are less likely to abuse people in their families, making women and girls in such arrangements safer than others. Critics convincingly challenged that the stigma facing single parents often keeps women in bad situations, making them even more vulnerable to abuse. Taher of WOMAN, Inc. agrees with those critics and has argued that that’s yet another reason why Californians need the Healthy Babies Act.

The state’s senate appropriations committee is expected to vote on the bill August 14.

 

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North Carolina Becomes the Latest Casualty of the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act Decision

Moral March to the Polls

A protester at a "Moral March to the Polls" rally in Winston-Salem on July 7

On Wednesday, August 6, the country celebrated the forty-ninth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the most impactful civil rights law ever passed by Congress. Two days later, a federal judge in North Carolina denied a preliminary injunction to block key provisions of the state’s new voting law, widely described as the most onerous in the country.

North Carolina’s new voting restrictions will now be in effect for the 2014 midterms and beyond, pending a full trial in July 2015, a month before the fiftieth anniversary of the VRA. The federal government and plaintiffs including the North Carolina NAACP and the League of Women Voters argued during a hearing last month that three important parts of the law—a reduction in early voting from seventeen to ten days, the elimination of same-day registration during the early voting period, and a prohibition on counting provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct—disproportionally burdened African-American voters in violation of Section 2 of the VRA and should be enjoined before the 2014 election.

As evidence, plaintiffs showed that in recent elections African-Americans were twice as likely to vote early, use same-day registration and vote out-of-precinct. In 2012, for example, 300,000 African-Americans voted during the week of early voting eliminated by the state, 30,000 used same-day registration and 2,500 cast out-of-precinct ballots. Overall, 70 percent of blacks voted early and African-Americans made up 42 percent of new same-day registrants.

Judge Thomas Schroeder of the Middle District of North Carolina disagreed. “Plaintiffs’ complaints state plausible claims upon which relief can be granted and should be permitted to proceed in the litigation,” he wrote in a 125-page opinion. “However, a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy to be granted in this circuit only upon a ‘clear showing’ of entitlement…. Even assuming Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits, they have not demonstrated they are likely to suffer irreparable harm—a necessary prerequisite for preliminary relief—before trial in the absence of an injunction.” 

Basically, Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, said that even if African-American voters face burdens as a result of the new restrictions, they will still be able to openly participate in the electoral process and will not face “ an inequality of opportunity to vote.”

It’s important to note that this is just a preliminary opinion and the outcome was not surprising. The most contentious aspect of the law—the requirement that voters produce specifics forms of government-issued ID to cast a ballot—doesn’t go into effect until 2016 and was not the focus of the injunction pleadings. In April, a federal judge in Wisconsin blocked the state’s voter ID law under Section 2 of the VRA following a full trial.

As I wrote following the four-day hearing in Winston-Salem last month, it’s very possible the plaintiffs could lose the preliminary injunction hearing and win the trial in July 2015, when they’ll have more time, more expertise and more evidence, like voter ID, to draw on. It’s tougher for plaintiffs to win a preliminary injunction than a full trial, especially in an off-year election when voter turnout is lower and restrictions on voting are perceived as less costly.

That said, this is a significant opinion, and one that shows why Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is no substitute for Section 5. Indeed, North Carolina is the perfect case study for what happened after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. (If the ruling leads to diminished voter turnout, particularly among African-Americans and young voters, it could also swing the close Senate race between Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis, which could very well determine which party controls the Senate next year.)

Let’s review the legislative history. In April 2013, the North Carolina House passed a sixteen-page voter ID bill that required a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, but also accepted student IDs from state universities and public employee IDs. The bill languished in the North Carolina Senate until the Supreme Court overturned Section 4 of the VRA, freeing states like North Carolina with the worst history of voting discrimination from having to clear their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5.

Within a month of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Senate introduced a fifty-seven-page “monster” (so dubbed by Democracy NC) that required strict voter ID (no student IDs, no public employees IDs allowed), cut early voting, eliminated same-day registration, repealed out-of-precinct voting, axed pre-registration for high school students, ended public financing of judicial elections, increased the number of poll challengers and even got rid of Citizen Awareness Month, which urged North Carolinians to register to vote.

“It was a 90 percent different bill,” testified Representative Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Cumberland County. “It was an ambush on the people of North Carolina.”

The Senate took only two days to debate the new bill, which repealed or curtailed nearly every reform that encouraged people to vote in the state. The House passed the Senate’s version in a matter of hours, with no amendments offered or public input. “It was, bar none, the worst legislative process I’ve ever been through,” Glazier said. “If you were writing a textbook on legislation, this was a textbook example of how not do it.”

Not only did North Carolina no longer have to approve its voting changes with the federal government thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, the burden of proof shifted from the state to the voters most impacted by the law, as did the legal standard needed to show discrimination under the VRA. “You have the burden of showing clear evidence,” Judge Schroeder reminded the plaintiffs several times during the hearing.

Under Section 5, North Carolina could not implement any voting change that left minority voters worse off. That was clearly the case with regards to the new voting law, since African-Americans are 23 percent of registered voters in North Carolina, but made up 29 percent of early voters in 2012, 34 percent of those without state-issued ID and 41 percent of those who used same-day registration.

But under Section 2, plaintiffs have to show that the “totality of circumstances” leaves a minority group with “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process.” The simplicity of Section 5 has been replaced by the complexity of Section 2. What would have been a slam-dunk case for the government and civil rights groups is now a long slog, with a very uncertain outcome.

As Judge Schroeder noted in his opinion, “Vote-denial claims under Section 2 have thus far been relatively rare, perhaps due in part to the fact that since 1965, many jurisdictions—including many North Carolina counties—were under federal control and barred from enacting any new voting procedure without first obtaining ‘pre-clearance’ under Section 5 of the VRA from the DOJ or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.”

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“If this ruling stands,” wrote Rick Hasen, “it shows that Section 2 and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause are poor substitutes in protecting voting rights for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Members of Congress introduced legislation in January to resurrect Section 5. The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 has 171 co-sponsors in the House, but no Republican co-sponsor in the Senate. There is little urgency in Congress to pass it. In a perfect world, this week’s North Carolina ruling would change that.

 

Read Next: North Carolina will determine the future of the Voting Rights Act.