US Opinion and Commentary

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Obama’s Triangulation in Vietnam

Posted May 20th, 2016 at 5:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Who would have thought that the United States would consider lifting an arms embargo on Vietnam after fighting a losing war there. And it’s under consideration because Vietnam is concerned about encroachment by a fellow communist country, China, which helped arm the victorious North Vietnamese against the U.S.
Monday’s visit by President Barack Obama marks the third such trip by an American president since diplomatic relations were re-established in 1995.
Weighing heavily on Obama against lifting the 41-year arms embargo is Vietnam’s human rights record. One prominent political prisoner was released Friday. But Vietnam is said to detain the most political prisoners in Southeast Asia. Media is repressed and public protest is subject to crackdown.
Vietnam and the U.S. have a common interest in reversing China’s provocative behavior in the South China Sea. Both countries have common interest in developing stronger trade and cultural ties. Where does human rights fit into the equation?

Zika’s Budget Bite

Posted May 19th, 2016 at 6:03 pm (UTC-4)
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While there is near unanimity about the dangers posed by the Zika virus, there’s a political split over funding the fight against it.
President Barack Obama sent Congress a request in February for $1.9 billion in emergency funding “to respond to Zika virus transmission across the United States and internationally.”
Tuesday, the Senate approved a $1.1 billion Zika funding measure. Late Wednesday, the House of Representatives said yes to $622 million, a little more than half of what the Senate passed and about one-third of what the President asked. The White House says it will continue to press for its full request.
As the two houses of Congress try to find common ground on how much to spend, the disease is already making inroads into U.S. territory.
On Friday, a pregnant Puerto Rican woman’s fetus was determined to have developed microcephaly, the birth defect associated with Zika, becoming the first American so diagnosed.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control estimates hundreds of thousands in Puerto Rico will be infected by the Zika virus this year.
There will be more. Summer travel plans are being changed. Decisions to send young American athletes to the Olympics in Brazil are being scrutinized. And some couples are questioning whether it’s a good time to get pregnant.
All of that will be part of the political calculations of a public health crisis going forward.

Sykes-Picot +100 Years

Posted May 18th, 2016 at 4:37 pm (UTC-4)
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100 years ago this week, a British colonel and a French diplomat drew a few lines on a map of the Middle East. Those lines were the first draft of borders that are still disputed, and battled over today.
Mark Sykes and François-Georges Picot were empowered by their governments to secretly work out an arrangement to split up the Levant part of the Ottoman Empire even before World War I was over.
Sykes & Picot came up with areas of British (area A and area in red) and French influence (area B and area in blue). The brown shaded area would be internationally administered. The secret plan was signed on May 16, 1916, two-and-a-half years before World War I ended.
Sykes-Picot was seen as a betrayal of the Arabs by the British, who promised their support for an independent state in exchange for Arab support against the Ottomans.
Memories of that supposed betrayal remain strong. When the Islamic State bulldozed the barrier marking Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria in 2014 they tweeted #SykesPicotOver.
So, is a line drawn in the sand 100 years ago the cause of the Middle East’s problems today?
Like most issues involving the Middle East, ask 10 people and you will get 10 different opinions.

Ben Rhodes’ Turn in Washington’s Spin Cycle

Posted May 17th, 2016 at 4:42 pm (UTC-4)
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Ben Rhodes was a no-show at a congressional hearing that was ostensibly about him.
Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications, is described in a controversial New York Times Magazine profile of him as “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy” aside from President Obama.
The passages drawing the most attention center on the nuclear deal with Iran. The profile reveals that the White House spun a narrative that the deal came about in 2013, when “moderates” came to power in Iran when in fact, “the most meaningful part of the negotiations” took place in 2012, months before the election of President Hassan Rouhani.
Republicans on the House Oversight Committee criticized Rhodes for how he managed the White House campaign to sell the deal to Congress and the media. Committee Democrats pointed out the Bush White House engineered a similar campaign about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In a letter to President Barack Obama, three U.S. senators called for him to fire Rhodes.
When voters select a presidential candidate on election day, they’re not necessarily thinking about the hundreds of people who will fill key advisory positions behind that candidate. And when the spotlight catches one of those generally anonymous presidential loyalists, it begins one of Washington’s favorite parlor games: Is the President being well served?
Ben Rhodes skipped the invitation to appear before the Congressional committee, but he cannot avoid the political spotlight.

Hillary Clinton: Eyeing Trump While Sanders Tries to Close

Posted May 16th, 2016 at 4:23 pm (UTC-4)
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Voters in Kentucky and Oregon get their chance Tuesday to choose a candidate to run for president of the United States. Donald Trump is the last Republican standing in what once was a 17-candidate field. And the Democrats still have Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders going at one another.
The delegate math is tilted heavily against Sanders. Democrats allocate pledged delegates proportionally to the popular primary vote. That means Sanders has to overwhelmingly win most, if not all the remaining 11 contests to overcome Clinton’s current 283 pledged delegate lead.
Then, there are the “superdelegates” — 712 elected officials and Democratic party leaders who are not bound to any candidate. Right now, Clinton has support from an overwhelming number of those superdelegates.
The Clinton conundrum: positioning herself to take on Trump without burning bridges to Sanders supporters.

Climate, Russia on U.S.-Nordic Summit Agenda

Posted May 13th, 2016 at 1:08 pm (UTC-4)
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Geography and the shared values of democracy and human rights shapes the agenda for Friday’s U.S.-Nordic summit at the White House.
During his welcoming remarks, President Barack Obama referred to Nordic nations’ welcoming of refugees and humanitarian aid contributions. He praised their dedication to slowing climate change. And he referred to the Nordic countries’ as reliable allies when it comes to security.
It took the president of Finland to mention the biggest security issue for the Nordic countries: Russia. They see what happened in Ukraine and are concerned that the same thing might happen to their neighbors across the Baltic Sea: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Ties between the United States and the Nordic countries go back 1,000 years, when the Vikings were Europe’s first to find the North America. And now there are about 11-million Scandinavian-Americans in the U.S. President Obama said he invited the leaders to the White House because “sometimes we have a tendency to take our best friends for granted.” They have a lot of work ahead of them.

Reading the U.S.-China Tea Leaves

Posted May 12th, 2016 at 5:22 pm (UTC-4)
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President Barack Obama has an opportunity to take several steps toward his oft-anticipated and oft-postponed Asia pivot later this month. A visit to Vietnam before attending the G7 summit in Japan puts Asia squarely on the agenda.
And when Asia is on the agenda, China is at the center. From an economic engine to a military superpower, China impacts nearly everything that happens in Asia.
As for how that interests the U.S., Defense Secretary Ash Carter told graduating cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy that managing historic change the Asia-Pacific “will be in your lifetimes the single region of the world of most consequence for America. It’s where more than half of humankind lives, half the global economy, ad that’s only increasing.”
Last month, Carter gave witness to the importance of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific when he toured the USS John C. Stennis, operating in the South China Sea.
It all has experts reading the Chinese tea leaves.

Pain of Opioids

Posted May 11th, 2016 at 5:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Opioid addiction is now considered an epidemic in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control says the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids — prescribed painkillers and heroin — increased 200 percent between 2000 and 2014. 47,055 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2014. 61 percent involved opioids. Increasingly, the abuse of prescription opioids are seen as a gateway to heroin use.
The Congress is acting. The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to fight the epidemic in March. Tuesday, the House began passing a series of bills aimed at doing the same thing.
Pain is deeply personal issue. Is it physical or emotional? What’s your pain threshold? What medicine will work best?
The question now: is the cure killing more than just the pain?

Obama to Hiroshima: Acknowledge or Apologize?

Posted May 10th, 2016 at 4:10 pm (UTC-4)
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President Obama’s decision to be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima attracted plenty of chatter even before the final decision was announced.
Once Secretary of State John Kerry paid his respects during an April meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Japan, it seemed inevitable that Obama would do the same during this month’s G7 summit.
The United States remains the only nation to use a nuclear weapon, forcing Japan to surrender, ending World War II. A Smithsonian Institution exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the Enola Gay’s mission to drop the first atomic bomb drew widespread criticism for raising questions about the necessity of using such a weapon of mass destruction. President Harry Truman’s decision to do so remains one of the world’s most scrutinized, 71 years later.
Visiting Hiroshima, Obama will have to balance the burden of his predecessor’s decision with acknowledgement of the result — and vision of the future.

Trump and the Republicans

Posted May 9th, 2016 at 4:02 pm (UTC-4)
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Mainstream Republicans have had 11 months to defeat Donald Trump. 16 candidates, 12 debates and 47 primaries or caucuses later, Trump is on the precipice of winning the party’s nomination. And the Republican Party is facing an identity crisis.
Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham are among Trump’s former presidential rivals who say they will not vote for him. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Bobby Jindal are among the former candidates who are backing Trump because they say the option of voting for Hillary Clinton is worse. We have yet to hear directly from the last of the vanquished, John Kasich and Ted Cruz.
Both living Republican former presidents of the United States, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, reportedly will not endorse Trump. Nor will the most recent Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
The top elected Republican, House Speaker Paul Ryan says he could not support Trump…yet. The two will meet this Thursday, and the outcome may determine whether the ideological fault line that is Donald Trump will continue to split the Republican party. Or, can enough common ground be found to bring together the leaders of the Grand Old Party and the man who would be its new standard bearer?

Battleground: Bathrooms

Posted May 6th, 2016 at 3:48 pm (UTC-4)
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America’s culture wars have a new battlefield: the bathroom.
North Carolina’s House Bill 2 was passed in March. It requires people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate.
That means, if someone was born a boy, they can only enter men’s restrooms, even if they have fully transitioned to the opposite gender. The same goes for women now living as men.
Transgender people say this discriminates against them and puts them in physical danger.
The U.S. Justice Department evidently agrees and has notified North Carolina’s governor that House Bill 2 violates the Civil Rights Act and other federal anti-discrimination laws.
Supporters of the law say it is simply designed to protect women and children from sexual predators. They say child predators might simply act transgender in order to get access to children in public restrooms.
So far, there have been no documented incidents of this happening in the 12 states that already have non-discrimination laws on the books.
North Carolina officials have been given a deadline of Monday to decide whether they will enforce House Bill 2, or risk forfeiting billions of dollars in federal aid.
10 months after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage throughout the United States, transgender rights may be on a trajectory that could land it on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Always Remember: Never Again

Posted May 5th, 2016 at 3:31 pm (UTC-4)
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Holocaust Remembrance Day comes at a time in American political history where the rhetoric has been ratcheted up to new heights, and many wondering where the vitriol will lead us.
In her remarks at the Holocaust Museum, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker reminded the audience that the Holocaust is “a lesson in the power of words and language…the most extreme example of what happens when we let our hate and fear of the other shape our speech.”
There’s a children’s rhyme that says “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” While it’s used to persuade a child to refrain from physical retaliation to name-calling, can ignoring and remaining silent about hate speech lead to unimaginable ends?
Never again.

Indiana Drops the Starting Flag on the Trump v. Clinton Race

Posted May 4th, 2016 at 4:36 pm (UTC-4)
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Rarely have so many eyes been on Indiana this early in May. But the results from Tuesday’s presidential primary race will have far more impact than whoever wins the Indianapolis 500 later this month. Donald Trump lapped his closest rival, Ted Cruz, who emptied his tank in an effort to win in Indiana. The other Republican in the race, John Kasich, has now joined Cruz in idling their campaigns. With a win in Indiana, Bernie Sanders continues to try to push past Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But short of a total Clinton collapse, Sanders will remain in her rear view mirror. Polling shows both Trump and Clinton would be the most unpopular presidential candidates in recent history. With so many feeling so negative about both candidates, are voters rooting for a clean race or one full or crashes?

Freedom of the Press

Posted May 3rd, 2016 at 2:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Freedom of the press is one of the foundation rights of the American people; the first of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It wasn’t until 1993, 202 years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, that the United Nations declared that access to information is a fundamental right of everyone. Ensuring the fundamental right to information is a continuing battle. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 10 journalists have been killed so far this year. 199 journalists were imprisoned for their work in 2015. Amnesty International highlights nine journalists who have been jailed or killed for doing their jobs. Reporters Without Borders has launched a “Great Year for Censorship” campaign to focus attention on the world’s most repressive regimes for press freedom. Freedom House says press freedom is at its lowest point in 12 years, with 46 percent of the world’s population living in countries whose media is not free. Today in Bangkok, after a reporter shouted “Freedom of the press is freedom of the people,” Thailand’s Prime Minister turned, pointed at the reporter and said “Watch yourself.”

Baghdad’s Political Battle and the War Against ISIS

Posted May 2nd, 2016 at 1:57 pm (UTC-4)
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Turmoil in Baghdad is a phrase too often seen and heard in the media since 2003. This weekend was no different, when anti-government protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament building Saturday, sending lawmakers fleeing for safety. While the protesters have retreated, their demands for good governance has not. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Baghdad Thursday to demonstrate support for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his attempt to form a new cabinet. It was 10 years ago, almost to the day, when then Senator Joe Biden suggested partitioning Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish autonomous regions, with a central government in charge of common interests. The partition did not happen, but the political turmoil has continued. Ripples from the current political crisis in Baghdad are felt hundreds of miles north in Mosul, where the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga and U.S. military forces among others are planning an offensive to free the city from Islamic State rule. But without a political solution in Baghdad, military success in Mosul seems less and less likely.