Thursday, March 26, 2009

Activist Newsletter, March 26, 2009

March 26, Issue #145

The Activist Newsletter, published in New Paltz, N.Y., appears once a month, supplemented by the Activist Calendar of progressive events, which is sent to Hudson Valley readers only. Editor: Jack A. Smith (who writes the articles that appear without a byline or credit to other publications). He is the former editor of the (U.S.) Guardian Newsweekly. Copy Editor: Donna Goodman. Calendar Editor: Rocco Rizzo. If you know someone who may benefit from this newsletter, ask them to subscribe at If you no longer wish to receive the newsletter, unsubscribe at the same address. Please send event listings to the above email address. The current and back issues of the newsletter/calendar are available at



1. REBUILDING THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT — A sector of the U.S. peace movement seems to be retiring from active opposition to America's wars now that the Democrats control the White House and Congress. But on March 21 the first nationally coordinated protests of the post-Bush period showed that our movement is still there, struggling against the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, and looking to get stronger.

2. ANSWER LEADER SPEAKS ABOUT THE MOVEMENT — Brian Becker, the lead organizer of the March 21 rally and march to the Pentagon and the headquarters of the war profiteers, comments on the peace movement.

3. MAKE MY FILIBUSTER — The fear of a Republican filibuster causes the majority party to engage in big compromises to gain a couple of GOP votes or to drop progressive legislation altogether. But in many cases, concessions may not be necessary, says an emeritus professor of political science.

4. THE ONE PERCENT SOLUTION — What do American college students and the country's biggest banks and financial houses have in common? They are both deeply in debt and are borrowing billions. But which one — the students or the financial fat cats — is paying a very low interest on loans, and which one is paying four to eight time more in interest?

5. CHECK IT OUT — Three items: Israeli war crimes in Gaza; living in a cage; and compassionate farming.

EQUALITY IN LATIN AMERICA — As more than half the Latin American republics have moved toward the political left within the last decade, a transformation is taking place that is improving the status of women throughout the region


8. IRAN'S VIEW OF OBAMA — George Friedman of has written a most interesting geopolitical analysis of U.S.-Iranian relations, which we reprint.



A sector of the U.S. peace movement seems to be retiring from active opposition to Washington's wars at a time of the spreading violence of war from Afghanistan to Pakistan and from Iraq to Palestine.

Our movement is largely composed of Democratic Party voters who opposed "Bush's wars," but some of them are reluctant to demonstrate against "Obama's wars." This may change in time, as it did when most Democrats turned against President Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam.

Another sector of the antiwar movement — smaller but energetic and devoted to demonstrating against military aggression — is taking up the slack. This was evident at the peace demonstrations in Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and many other locations March 21 to observe the sixth anniversary of the unjust and illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The Washington protest, which we attended, was lively and youthful. It began with a rally near the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a march over the Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon, and continuing to the nearby Crystal City headquarters of four war corporations — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and KBR. [Links to videos of the Washington, L.A. and San Francisco actions are listed at the end of this article.]

A hundred colorful cardboard mock coffins symbolizing the war victims were delivered to the main entrances of the death-dealing corporations, as county and state police in black Darth Vader-type riot uniforms sought to intimidate the marchers by their menacing presence: arms folded, clubs, pepper spray and scowls at the ready.

The cops got an earful, as thousands of demonstrators at each stop chanted in unison to such cadenced slogans as: They Say Get Back/We Say Fight Back," and "No Justice, No Peace/U.S. Out of the Middle East," and "Hey Obama, Yes We Can/Troops Out of Afghanistan," and "Cut the Funding for the War/We Can't Stand it Anymore," and "They’re Our Brothers, They're Our Sisters/We Support the War Resisters," and "Occupation is a Crime/From Iraq to Palestine."

The peace movement has declined these last couple of years of Bush's "endless wars," but there has been a precipitous plunge since the election of President Barack Obama last November. Presumably, with a Democrat in the White House all's supposed to be right with U.S. foreign-military policy.

As speakers at the March 21 peace actions made clear, however, it's still the wrong policy: (1) President Obama is greatly expanding the nearly eight-year-old war in Afghanistan to the extent that it is spreading to Pakistan, destabilizing an already unsteady nuclear-armed country. News reports March 24 reveal that "Russian officials are very much concerned about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal." (2) The new administration, adopting President Bush's timetable, will remain in Iraq at least until the end of 2011, and possibly longer. It turns out that among America's 50,000 "non-combat" troops who will remain to the end, some are combat soldiers in disguise. (3) After Washington's subsidized ally Israel recently killed 1,400 overwhelmingly civilian Palestinians in the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza — a war crime according to UN agreements and international law — the White House, in effect, shrugged. (4) And the Obama Administration is presiding over a large expansion of the Army and Marines while hiking the bloated 2010 war budget by 4%.

It's telling that the one thing that reactionary congressional Republicans support that emanates from the Democratic White House is its continuation of the Bush Administration wars. Also of interest is that of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, only 14 — eight Democrats and six Republicans, none from the Hudson Valley — signed an open letter to President Obama politely asking him to "reconsider" his decision to deploy another 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year. And the White House is even sending the troops without an exit strategy. Remember the fuss over exit strategies?

It's almost like the old days, and so is this: Remember when war was called war? During the presidential campaign, the then-Sen. Obama defined Afghanistan as the war on terrorism's "central front." Now it's evidently the central front of the "ongoing overseas contingency operations." The Obama Administration in its 2010 budget and elsewhere now substitutes that obscure phrase in place of referring to the "war on terrorism," which will no longer be used. The new term would be comic were it not a slight to those whose lives are daily shattered by this "contingency."

The Washington protestors recognize that centrist Obama is superior to his disgraced right-wing predecessor, and many voted for him. But they understand the necessity of applying as much public pressure as necessary to force an end to Washington's criminal wars. Opposition to holding Obama's feet to the fire on this issue is undoubtedly a factor in the movement's decline. A subsidiary factor for some is the increasing criticism at many peace protests of Israel's attacks on the Palestinians.

Hudson Valley peace organizers became aware in February that local participation in the Washington protest would be lower than in previous years because of the Obama factor — a situation we soon learned was nationwide. We could tell by the problems we had organizing buses.

This was the 21st peace bus trip Donna Goodman and I have put together from the Valley to big out-of-town protests, mostly in Washington, over the last 14 years. Since 9/11, we have brought no fewer than three buses averaging 150 activists (and sometimes twice that number), to numerous protests in the nation's capital. But for this demonstration we were lucky to send one charter that was two-thirds full. The Albany capital district movement to our north, which also expected more buses, sent one. Another nearby effort was cancelled.

To prepare our passengers for a smaller protest in Washington we sent them an email containing this extract:

"As some of you may know, the U.S. peace movement is experiencing a difficult time, even as the Afghan war is expanding and widening into Pakistan. Since the November election and particularly the inauguration, a quite large sector of our broad national movement seems to have pulled back. This includes activists in the Hudson Valley who have marched and demonstrated in Washington more than once against Bush's wars.

"But now the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan are President Obama's wars. This seems to have dampened the enthusiasm to demonstrate for peace at the seat of American power and within sight of the war machine while a Democrat occupies the White House.

"We are not discouraged by such developments, having seen our movement rise and fall and rise again on previous occasions over many years. It just means we all must do an even better job of explaining our position, of organizing, and of struggling for peace."

En route to Washington we feared there might be a very small turnout — but people kept arriving from some 65 departure locations in 20 states and the crowd grew throughout the opening noon rally. By the time the marchers passed the Pentagon and arrived at Crystal City to confront the war profiteers, we estimated it was 10,000, which was later confirmed by the organizers.

This is much smaller than the 100,000-plus demonstrators that the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition (ANSWER) customarily brought to Washington during the Bush era. But the first national peace action of the post-Bush presidency — despite losing part of the Democratic base — is proof that the national movement exists and is taking steps toward strengthening itself for future actions. The March 21 protest was good for the participants and for our movement. From the rally to the placement of the mock coffins, we had a much-needed sense of our own unity, strength and purpose, and many of us were aware we were keeping the movement going.

The protest was sponsored by a united front coalition led by ANSWER and including many national and local peace coalitions and groups including the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations a new group formed last summer in hopes of helping unite and build the movement), the National Council of Arab Americans, Veterans For Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Muslim American Society, CodePink, and United States Labor Against the War, among scores of other groups. United for Peace and Justice, a large coalition leaning toward the Democratic Party, was invited but refused to participate.

The political call of the day was to end the wars and bring the troops home now, and to end all military occupations from Afghanistan to Palestine. Peace and anti-imperialism were the themes. A prominent slogan was "Jobs and Education — Not Wars and Occupation." The proportion of young activists in their 20s was extremely large. The mood was serious and determined. The swift growth of the pro-Palestine sector was much in evidence. A fairly large proportion of Muslims and Arabs attended the action.

At the rally, dozens of speakers — representing the many groups at the event — spoke for only two or three minutes each. A Palestinian poet at the microphone noted that "too many people act like there's not a war going on." A hip-hop artist said that "My high school never had a computer/What they have is a military recruiter." A progressive city councilwoman from Vincenza, Italy, described the popular protests against building a second U.S. military base in her district. A Gold Star Mother told of her son's death in Iraq. A black minister said he was "happy to have an African-American president, but we want a president who will do the right thing." A student leader said "military recruiters are the front line of the war." A Bronx Community College student told of "cuts in education while billions are spent on wars."

A Veterans for Peace leader criticized Obama's war policy. A leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War called for bringing home all the troops now and said the organization "stood behind war resisters and prisoners of conscience 100%." The leader of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations said "we must broaden our movement and make sure the next demonstration is bigger and the one after that is bigger still."

CodePink's Medea Benjamin and former Army Col. Ann Wright, who both just returned from Gaza, asked, "do you want your tax dollars to go into the killing in Gaza and Iraq?" A representative of the Muslim American Society stated that "changing the world is a protracted but necessary struggle." Eugene Puryear of Student ANSWER called for "fighting imperialism to build a new system."

ANSWER national coordinator Brian Becker summed it up in these words: "This is the launch of the post-Bush era antiwar movement. Bush is gone, but the occupation of Iraq continues, the war in Afghanistan is escalating, and the people of Palestine are living under a state of siege.”

Iraq and Afghanistan veterans against the war led the march that began at 1:30 p.m. The route resounded with chanting. A contingent of right wing counter-demonstrators came into view with a huge banner calling us "Traitors!" but it was much smaller than similar actions in the past, and there were no threats or harassment this time. There were some tense moments as the march approached the various buildings housing the war industries — who knew what the cops would do? — but all the coffins eventually were placed in front of the four corporate doors.

Several hours later we learned that ANSWER's rallies in San Francisco and Los Angeles each attracted 4,000 demonstrators. There, too, the numbers were smaller but, as in Washington, the politics and slogans were right-on, the crowds were mostly young and enthusiastic, and there was a sense of a new beginning for the peace movement.

San Francisco ANSWER reported: "A spirited march proceeded from the Embarcadero along Market Street to Civic Center. The crowd, with a large proportion of youth, stopped at banks in the Financial District where the marchers chanted 'Stop the war against the poor,' 'Occupation is a crime: Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine!' and “Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation!'…. During the rally at Civic Center, police provoked the demonstrators by wading into the peaceful crowd, pushing, shoving and then arresting and clubbing demonstrators —some as young as 11 and 13 —who had been engaged in a militant verbal exchange with a few dozen Zionists from S.F. Voice for Israel." [See video #8 below; it's quite moving.]

Los Angeles ANSWER reported: "A rally with community leaders, antiwar, union and student activists kicked off the action. 'Today is a new beginning for the anti-war movement,' said Michael Prysner, Iraq war veteran and member of the Veterans and Service Members Task Force of the ANSWER Coalition. "We are initiating a new period of struggle against the racist policies of the U.S. war machine….

"After the rally, protesters marched behind a procession of coffins through Hollywood to the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, the busiest area in Los Angeles. The march stopped in front of the famous Kodak Theatre, where organizers led a symbolic “die-in” to dramatize the effect of imperialist wars on innocent people. Thousands lay down in the middle of the street as the sound of bombs and air raid sirens blared over loudspeakers. Scores of bystanders watched the action with rapt attention on the sidewalks nearby. The end of the protest was the successful delivery of mock coffins to the recruitment station, where veterans and organizers faced off with a line of police."

The quest for peace is a long struggle, as is our opposition to colonialism and imperialism. This writer has been with the peace movement since he was a teenager picketing against the Korean War, and has witnessed its many ups and downs since then. The ups were fantastic, such as the January 2002 Washington protest of a half-million people two months before warmonger Bush lied his way to war, assisted by a largely pliant Democratic Congress. The downs you get used to and just keep pushing.

The smaller numbers in Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles weren't downs. When a sector of the peace movement sat on its hands because the Democrats are now managing Bush's wars, other people came out to struggle for peace, boldly and with a fighting spirit. That's a positive sign. Let's rebuild around that.

Editor's Note:

Many big city papers had stories about March 21. News of the event went around the world and it's all over the Internet.

The Washington Post had an interesting article. It's at

Here are links to brief videos about the protests:

1. The Washington march through Crystal City:

2. Good interviews with Washington protest leaders:

3. Darth Vader cops at a Crystal City coffin drop:

4. Students and youth in Crystal City:

5. College students in Crystal City:

6. CodePink in Crystal City:

7. Los Angeles protest:

8. San Francisco protest:

9. C-Span interview with ANSWER's Brian Becker:



After the Washington protest, the Activist Newsletter asked ANSWER coalition leader Brian Becker how it went from his point of view. He told us the following:

The antiwar movement found its feet again at the March 21 Washington march on Pentagon.

President Obama has replaced George Bush, but the occupation of Iraq continues and the war in Afghanistan is widening. It's an obligation for those who oppose imperialism and colonialism to continue their solidarity with the people of countries that are occupied by foreign armies. It was noteworthy that the Washington march was led by U.S. war vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. They have had first hand experience in finding that occupation is not liberation.

The U.S. peace movement has reached a new juncture. A significant sector of people who oppose the occupation of Iraq and war in Afghanistan has decided to give the new administration the benefit of the doubt. Thus, while thousands demonstrated, this sector retreated to the sidelines.

This was predictable. After eight long years of the Bush regime, it was expected that there would be a high degree of optimism about the new administration. In many instances it seems that a number of people who have taken a peace stand in the past have some illusions about the Obama Administration. The reality is that the government in Washington still represents the forces of imperialism. That explains why Obama retained Bush's Secretary of Defense Gates, and Generals Petraeus and Odierno to oversee Iraq and Afghanistan policy. The three of them were the architects of the Bush Administration war strategy for the last two years, a service they are now performing for the new government.

From our point of view, the politicians come and go but an aggressive foreign policy, as well as the military-industrial complex serving the corporate and banking elites, continues unchanged.

The Washington demonstration was vibrant, and composed largely of young people. It constituted the advance guard of those who oppose the Iraq-Afghan wars today, and who oppose the Gaza war as well. They actively challenged these wars when Bush was in power and are continuing to do so under the new administration. The illegal and unjust nature of these wars has not changed because there is a different occupant in the White House. The struggle clearly continues.



[Editor's Note: Mention the word filibuster and the Senate Democratic leadership often runs for cover. The fear of a Republican filibuster causes the majority party to engage in big compromises to gain a couple of GOP votes or to drop progressive legislation altogether. Now the worry is that the threat of a filibuster will kill the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. Some say nothing can be done about it. David E. RePass, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, thinks differently, and expressed his views in an article that appeared recently in the New York Times. Here it is.]

President Obama has decided to spend his political capital now, pushing through an ambitious agenda of health care, education and energy reform. If the Democrats in the Senate want to help him accomplish his goals, they should work to eliminate one of the greatest threats facing effective governance — the phantom filibuster.

Most Americans think of the filibuster (if they think of it at all) through the lens of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — a minority in the Senate deeply disagrees with a measure, takes to the floor and argues passionately round the clock to prevent it from passing. These filibusters are relatively rare because they take so much time and effort.

To reduce deadlock, in 1917 the Senate passed Rule 22, which made it possible for a supermajority — two-thirds of the chamber — to end a filibuster by voting for cloture. The two-thirds majority was later changed to three-fifths, or 60 of the current 100 senators.

In recent years, however, the Senate has become so averse to the filibuster that if fewer than 60 senators support a controversial measure, it usually won’t come up for discussion at all. The mere threat of a filibuster has become a filibuster, a phantom filibuster. Instead of needing a sufficient number of dedicated senators to hold the floor for many days and nights, all it takes to block movement on a bill is for 41 senators to raise their little fingers in opposition.

Historically, the filibuster was justified as a last-ditch defense of minority rights. Under this principle, an intense opposition should be able to protect itself from the tyranny of the majority. But today, the minority does not have to be intense at all. Its members have only to disagree with a measure to kill it. Essentially, the minority has veto power.

The phantom filibuster is clearly unconstitutional. The founders required a supermajority in only five situations: veto overrides and votes on treaties, constitutional amendments, convictions of impeached officials and expulsions of members of the House or Senate. The Constitution certainly does not call for a supermajority before debate on any controversial measure can begin.

And fixing the problem would not require any change in Senate rules. The phantom filibuster could be done away with overnight by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid. All he needs to do is call the minority’s bluff by bringing a challenged measure to the floor and letting the debate begin.

Some argue that this procedure would mire the Senate in one filibuster after another. But avoiding delay by not bringing measures to the floor makes no sense. For fear of not getting much done, almost nothing is done at all. And what does get done is so compromised and toothless to make it filibuster-proof that it fails to solve problems.

Better to risk a filibuster — an event that, because of the great effort involved, would actually be rare — than to save time and accomplish little or nothing.

It also happens to make a great deal of political sense for the Democrats to force the Republicans to take the Senate floor and show voters that they oppose Mr. Obama’s initiatives. If the Republicans want to publicly block a popular president who is trying to resolve major problems, let them do it.
And if the Republicans feel that the basic principles they believe in are worth standing up for, let them exercise their minority rights with an actual filibuster.

It is up to Mr. Reid. He can do away with the supermajority requirement for virtually all significant measures and return majority rule to the Senate. This is not to say that the Democrats should ride roughshod over the Republicans. Republicans should be included at all stages of the legislative process. However, with the daunting prospect of having to mount a real filibuster to demonstrate their opposition, Republicans may become much more willing to compromise.



What do American college students and the country's biggest banks and financial houses have in common? They are both deeply in debt and are borrowing billions. But which one — the students or the financial fat cats — is paying a very low interest on loans, and which one is paying four to eight time more in interest?

According to Rev. Jesse Jackson in an Op-Ed article Feb. 2 that appeared in a number of papers, "the U.S. government is loaning billions to the financial system — including Bank of America, Citigroup and JP Morgan — at less than 1% interest." But "students are generally forced to borrow for their education at rates in the range of 4% to 8%. Many are financing their education in part with credit cards that carry rates of 20%."

The well known civil rights fighter and leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition suggests a solution: "It is a simple-yet-sweeping plan to help families finance college costs that are steadily putting higher education out of the reach of most Americans. Our proposal is that students holding and applying for college loans should be offered interest rates that do not exceed 1% — the same favorable terms now being offered to large corporations under the federal bailout plan."

"Before graduating seniors can launch their families and careers," he continued, "they are already saddled with excessive debt. To make matters worse, if students miss payments in this fragile economy, their credit score declines, forcing them to pay the highest interest rates for cars, homes and other necessities — if they can qualify at all. Yet, financial institutions with what is tantamount to bad credit reports are being rewarded with tax-supported, low-interest loans.

"Lowering student loan interest rates to 1% directly addresses affordability, one of the most pressing problems facing our country. According to a report issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the cost of attending college has risen nearly three times the rate of the cost of living. After being adjusted for inflation, college tuition and fees rose 439% from 1982 to 2007, far outpacing increases for medical care, housing and food. During this same period, median family income rose 147%."

Jackson has proposed that federal bailout or stimulus funds should be used to offer the 1% loans to students. This would be a substantial saving for working families, particularly at a time when college costs are skyrocketing and state governments are cutting budgets. In New York State, Gov. David Paterson has proposed a $45 million cut in the state Tuition Assistance Program in his 2009-10 budget, as well as reductions in the State University system budget.

Democracy Now! reported March 12: "The average cost of four years at a private college is now a staggering $136,000. Four years at a public university, on average, will set you back $57,000. In order to pay for the rapidly increasing tuitions students were forced to borrow a total of $85 billion during the last school year — up from $41 billion 10 years ago. The average student now leaves college with $20,000 in debt."

While there has been no suggestion that it would lower student interest rates to the extent Jackson advocates, the Obama Administration introduced a budget proposal Feb. 26 that would allow the federal government to take much of the student loan business away from private lending institutions. It is being debated in Congress. Presently, the government's Family Education Loan Program (FELP) pays huge subsidies to private lenders to administer the student loans. There has also been an accompanying smaller program of direct government lending.

Under President Obama's budget plan, reported the Wall St. Journal, government "subsidies to private lenders would be eliminated, and the government would use the savings estimated at $47.5 billion over the next decade to help bolster the Pell grant program for low-income students. If approved by Congress, the plan would effectively end government-guaranteed loans to students by banks and other private lenders — lending that has totaled $56.7 billion in the current school year, and has been the primary source of college financial aid since the program was launched in the 1960s."

The New York Times reported that the White House seeks to end FELP and channel all new loans into the direct lending program. The budget proposal argues that the subsidy arrangement "has not only needlessly cost taxpayers billions of dollars, but has also subjected students to uncertainty because of turmoil in the financial markets."

The Washington political newspaper The Hill reported March 9 that President Obama's student loan proposal "has run into stiff bipartisan resistance from lawmakers who have received thousands in campaign contributions from private lenders." In 2008, the two biggest lending companies, Sallie Mae and Nelnet, distributed $583,000 to lawmakers and political action committees, splitting the largesse equally between Democrats and Republicans.

For instance, The Hill continued, "Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, received $20,000 in donations from private lenders Sallie Mae and Nelnet, the most of any lawmaker during the last campaign cycle. McKeon argues Obama’s proposal is a 'government takeover' of the $85 billion student aid industry that would only grow the country’s budget deficit ….

"Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), who with $18,000 in contributions had the second-highest fundraising total from the private student loan industry, also opposes Obama’s plan to have the federal government provide loans to students. He said the best way to provide aid to students would be to find a balance between public and private lending."

An improved Pell Grant system will mainly benefit students in working class, lower middle class and poorer families where some 40% of family income is required to enroll their student in a public four-year college. For middle class families the average is about 25% of income.

The New York Times explained it this way Feb. 27: "Under the current system, college students in families with incomes low enough to qualify receive a Pell Grant, but the amount of the grant depends on how much Congress votes for the program, and in recent years that amount has not kept pace with inflation. The administration now proposes to guarantee not only that students will receive grants, but also that it will keep pace with inflation. The current maximum grant is about $4,730, but beginning on July 1 that will rise to $5,350 as a result of the largest historical increase in the Pell program, already approved as part of the president’s economic stimulus bill. In 2010, the maximum grant is to rise to $5,550."

The crisis in student loans has been brewing for years but the recession is making things far worse. According to financial expert Shah Gilani, writing in March 5: "In a crushing blow to lobbyists, bankers, and loan intermediaries, the credit crisis and the accompanying collapse of the securitization market may actually force a top-to-bottom overhaul of this country’s much-maligned student loan system. If that happens, prospective student borrowers may no longer have to face a lifetime of indentured financial servitude, and the U.S. higher education system may finally get a long-overdue makeover."

Gilani declared that the Obama Administration "proposal is not a budget-buster, because the government already finances or guarantees most student loans," further noting: "While the credit crisis is to blame for our deep and devastating recession, the one silver lining may be an opportunity to permanently sideline profiteering banks and student loan intermediaries from feeding at the federal trough even as they stand on the backs of indentured-student borrowers."

In proposing a"1% solution," Jackson pointed out that under present conditions, "by the year 2020, the United States will need 14 million more college-trained workers than it will produce," while higher graduation rates in a number of other countries may harm America's long-term economic success.

He also noted that "the children we are not educating are mostly people of color. Every year, 1.2 million children do not graduate from high school. Of those, 348,427 are African-American and 296,555 are Latino. College graduation rates are equally dismal. Only 31% of Latinos and 48% of African-Americans complete some college, compared to 62% of whites and 80% of Asians."

Jackson's article concluded: "The issues of college affordability and access to higher education are inextricably linked to the very future of our nation. Placing a 1% cap on college loans will remove a major obstacle for millions of students who want to attend college but can't afford it."

Interviewed in mid-March on Democracy Now!, Jackson recognized that the Obama Administration has taken some steps in the direction of improving the student loan situation, but believed a real solution would take something more: "I am convinced that a mass action movement by students across the nation, congressional district by district, senate by senate, will have the massive impact. . . . A massive student movement will be the dose, the medicine we need to change the environment, to educate people about just how wrong this is, and that it can be changed."



WAR CRIMES: The British daily Guardian "has compiled detailed evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Israel during the 23-day offensive in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, involving the use of Palestinian children as human shields and the targeting of medics and hospitals." This important account is accompanied by three short but devastating videos you may access from the article. It is at

CLOSED ZONE: What's it like for human beings to live in a part of the world where, though it is not a prison, they might as well be living in a cage? This 95 second video tells the story: .

COMPASSIONATE FARMING: One doesn't have to be in favor of animal rights or a vegetarian to appalled by the conditions under which the great majority of 50 billion chickens are reared and slaughtered annually for food. Fast food has been accompanied by fast farming, otherwise known as factory farming. An eight minute video produced by the British organization Compassion in World Farming (CWF) examines the short brutal life of factory farmed chickens before they end up neatly wrapped at the supermarket or served at a fast food restaurant. CWF urges consumers of chicken meat to purchase only the free range or organic variety. This video footage shows potentially upsetting scenes of animal suffering, but it's best to know. The video is at The CWF website is



By Donna Goodman

A political transformation is taking place in Latin America that is improving the status of women throughout the region. More than half the 20 or so republics in the Western Hemisphere where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken have moved toward the political left within the last decade.

A sign of these times is a phrase from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who refers to himself as a feminist: "True socialism is feminist." Progressive Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa named "gender justice" — the end to discrimination against women — as part of his vision for 21st century socialism. And at the recent World Social Forum in Brazil, the Assembly of Social Movements issued the following declaration:

"The social emancipation process carried by the feminist, environmentalist and socialist movements in the 21st century aims at liberating society from capitalist domination of the means of production, communication and services, achieved by supporting forms of ownership that favor the social interest: small family freehold, public, cooperative, communal and collective property.

"Such an alternative will necessarily be feminist since it is impossible to build a society based on social justice and equality of rights when half of humankind is oppressed and exploited."

This article revolves around the question: to what extent have conditions for women changed as a result of the left trend in Latin American politics?

The U.S. has had interests in Latin America throughout the 1800s (the acquisition of much of Mexico being one of them), but Yankee domination throughout the region began in earnest with the Spanish-American war in 1898. It continued, despite Cuba's breakaway in 1959, for a full century, but is now declining as progressive countries assert their independence. In the process have come economic and social reforms, a number of which have benefited the women of Latin America.

In 1998, leftist Hugo Chavez won his first term as democratically elected president. Brazil elected Worker Party founder Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2002. In Bolivia, the poorest republic in South America, unionist Evo Morales was elected in 2005 after mass rebellions forced out three presidents in two years. Daniel Ortega, who led the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution in the 1970s and '80s, was democratically voted back into office in 2006. Progressive governments have been voted into office in Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. Chile, the country once ruled by the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet, is now headed by a female Socialist Party member, Michele Bachelet. The government of Argentina is also headed by a woman, Cristina Fernanedez de Kirchner.

Women in all regions of the world suffer subordination to men, in economic, political and social life and in the home. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is composed of the advanced capitalist democracies, Latin American women suffer less total gender discrimination — in ownership rights, civil liberties, family codes and physical integrity — than other regions of the world except for the OECD states. This isn't to suggest women have achieved equality in Latin America (or in the OECD states), but they enjoy certain rights denied their sisters, particularly in portions of Africa and Asia.

OECD data also show that there is an important correlation between social institutions and the economic role of women. Female participation in the workforce is low in areas where discrimination is high, for example. Women who are denied ownership rights can't start their own businesses. Social inequality is also pronounced in countries with low female literacy rates. Infant and maternal mortality rates are a measure of health care available for women.

Women constitute 40% of the Latin American workforce, but many of the economies cannot absorb all the women seeking work, especially the poorest. Also, many women who want to work in the economy are hampered by child care and housework responsibilities. In addition, many women work in the informal sectors or at home and have no access to worker safety nets. Women's average wages are 60%-70% of men's, averaging 64% as of 2007. (In the U.S women earn 77 cents to the male dollar.)

Most Latin American states have passed laws guaranteeing property rights for women, but because men often have more resources, women's holdings are likely to be smaller.

Nearly 90% of adults in Latin America and the Caribbean can read and write, but many are at a low level of literacy due to inadequate educational systems. Yet Latin America has made more progress in literacy than many other developing regions.

Reproductive rights are a key indication of women's rights. In most of the region, largely because of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, abortions are a crime. But the abortion rate is far higher than in Western Europe or the United States with more than four million abortions each year and tens of thousands of resulting deaths. Only in Cuba is abortion legal on demand. A few other countries permit it for extreme circumstances. In the most recent abridgement of women's rights, Nicaragua last year outlawed abortion without exception, including to save the life of the mother, the only exception formerly allowed.

Many Latin American women are agitating for legalizing abortion in all or some circumstances. The recent lifting of Washington's global ban on abortions in health facilities funded by the U.S. may help move this forward.

Divorce is now legal throughout Latin America. The last country in the region to legalize it was Chile, in December 2004. (Now only two countries in the world ban divorce — the Philippines and Malta.)

Violence against women is a serious problem in Latin America, as it is in most of the rest of the world. Approximately one in three women in Latin America and the Caribbean has been a victim of sexual, physical, or psychological violence at the hands of intimate partners, according to survey data collected by the Pan American Health Organization in 2006.

Since the 1990s, a majority of the countries in Latin America have taken some action to outlaw violence against women. However, conservative courts often choose not to rule for women, especially in cases of domestic violence. The region's women and their allies have given a name to the worst crime of violence against women: femicide. This is defined as the murder of women by men because they are women.

The existence of an active women's movement is an important factor in winning rights for women. Within the region, there have been active struggles for women's rights throughout the 20th Century to the present, even under the most oppressive regimes. Women have been formidable opponents of tyrannical governments, such as the dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. The indigenous women's movement played an important part in Bolivia's progressive gains. Women voted in large number for Venezuela's Chavez, and supported the revolution in Cuba.

There are some tensions within the Latin American women's movement as there are in such movements around the world. Women's movements are often separated by social class. They have different goals, different needs, a different orientation, and they can't always unite on gender. In cases of economic hardship, poor women's struggles are more likely to unite brothers and sisters of the same class than they are to unite sisters across class lines. Similarly, there is often disunity between movements of indigenous women and European-descended women.

Where the interests of class, race and gender do intersect, there are different orientations about what to fight for. Very broadly, one polarity sees the fight for equality with men as meaning that focusing on traditional women's work (child care, housework) will lock them into these gender roles. The other polarity begins by fighting where women are now (mothers, housewives) and wants rights and benefits right now for this women's work: paid maternity leave, stipends and social security for housework, free and readily available daycare. The benefits women have won to date are in both realms.

Movements of indigenous women are helping to transform the politics of the region. Women account for nearly 60% of the 50 million indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean, and they face triple discrimination as women, as indigenous and as poor. Also, much of the ecological devastation of Latin America is taking place on indigenous land, and women are in the forefront of the battle for natural resources.

Here is more detail on a few specific countries:

CUBA: Literacy is 100% for women and men, and women are 65% of university graduates; pay equity is embedded in law; nearly 40% of women are in the labor force, constituting 46% of all workers and half of all doctors; some 43% of deputies in the National Assembly are women, the highest percentage in Latin America and among the highest in the world; maternal mortality, at 34 per 100,000 is extremely low; infant mortality of six per thousand births is the lowest in Latin America. Abortion is free, as is all health care.

The Cuban constitution grants women equal economic, political, cultural, social and familial rights with men and prohibits discrimination based on race, skin color, sex, national origin, and religious belief. These rights are further supported by provisions in various laws, including the Family Code (1975), which requires men to participate equally in domestic labor, guarantees equal rights to women and men in marriage and divorce, and equal parental rights; and 1979 and 1984 revisions to the Penal Code, which provide additional penalties for violations of sexual equality.

The women's movement has been important in furthering women's gains. Women took part in the revolution, including in leadership roles. The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), a non-governmental organization with close ties to the government, is the national agency responsible for the advancement of women and is involved in every facet of society in promoting equality. Crimes of violence against women, especially rape and sexual assault, are severely punished in Cuba. The Federation of Cuban Women travels the country to find out if there is hidden violence and to set up mechanisms for reporting and for community intervention.

VENEZUELA: Women, especially poor women, have been a very large part of President Chavez's base in elections, in the street to oppose the U.S.-backed coup, in the recall referendum in 2004, and in supporting his programs. With a majority of people living in poverty and 65% of households run by single women, Chavez's social welfare programs are widely supported. These include adult education, free health and dental treatment, and care for women who have suffered domestic violence. There is also a high level of participation at the organizational and community level. But Venezuela also has its share of right-wing women, primarily from the middle class, who constitute the majority of demonstrators in opposition to Chavez.

The 1999 Venezuelan constitution guarantees total social, political and economic rights to all citizens. It clearly states that women are entitled to full citizenship, and it addresses discrimination, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. In addition to guaranteeing full equality between men and women in employment, it is the only constitution in Latin America that recognizes housework as an economically productive activity, thus entitling housewives to social security benefits.

In 2000, Chávez established the National Institute for Women by a presidential mandate, in accordance with the Law of Equal Opportunities for Women. The institute educates women to defend and expand the political, social and cultural rights they have achieved. It serves as a watchdog on the government and as a strategy for educating women about their rights, including how to report domestic violence.

Venezuela has set up Banmujer, the Women's Development Bank of Venezuela. The only national financial institution of its kind, Banmujer gives small, low-interest loans to women in order to help them form business ventures. The economic and social needs of women are also being met by a set of development programs called “social missions” that began operating in 2003 using oil revenues. These include a nutrition and food distribution program, adult literacy and education, and free healthcare clinics primarily in economically depressed areas. Such programs have helped to raise the standard of living significantly, contributing to a 27.6% drop in poverty rates since the missions began.

BOLIVIA: When Evo Morales was elected president in Bolivia in December 2005, 70% of the population of just under nine million was living below the poverty line. Morales's incoming cabinet consisted largely of indigenous people, trade unionists, and women. His cabinet also included the first woman to head the interior ministry — in charge of intelligence, the police, migration issues and the fight against drugs. Women were also at the head of the Ministries of Economic Development and of Health. All of these appointees have progressive pro-woman programs.

The just-ratified new constitution contains provisions that strengthen women's rights. It prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation, as well as familial and gendered violence. It guarantees equal pay for men and women with the same job. It also requires equal participation of women and men in Bolivia's Congress.

However, reproductive rights are not available to most women in Bolivia. Abortion is illegal except for victims of sexual assault or to prevent a life-threatening pregnancy. Yet, Bolivia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world — up to 80,000 procedures annually in a small-sized country, according to the UN. Many are relatively safe procedures performed in more than a dozen clinics around the country. But the average $150 fee is prohibitive to most women, driving many to seek alternative methods, resulting in at least one death a day.

CHILE: Under the Pinochet dictatorship, from 1973 to the 1990s, grassroots women's movements sprang up, partly in response to extreme poverty and to survive economically. Women formed buying and craft cooperatives and communal kitchens. They also created organizations to reclaim women's rights and basic human rights, and to search for the disappeared. This organizing transformed women into social activists.

Chilean women are now well represented in government and political life. They also have advanced social benefits. When elected, Michele Bachelet named a cabinet with an unprecedented equal number of men and women – making good on a campaign promise. Bachelet administers a program of limited social democracy but with a good record on women's rights, particularly in the areas of welfare, public pension benefits for women over 65, free childcare for working mothers, anti-discrimination legislation, and affirmative action to increase political representation. Starting in July 2009, all women 65 or older will receive a pension bonus for each living child they have. Women without a history of paid employment will receive public pensions.

Abortion is illegal in all circumstances and is the nation's highest cause of maternal deaths. But the Bachelet administration did institute a program of expanded access to contraception. One of these measures was a policy to distribute the morning after pill free in public health clinics. The country's high court outlawed this policy last April. Following this ruling, 10,000 people marched in the streets and hundreds engaged in a mass "apostasy," renouncing their membership in the Catholic Church.

Violence against women in Chile reflects what is going on in the rest of the region. Last fall Chile’s Chamber of Deputies passed a bill that would recognize femicide as an official crime and increase punishments for violators. The bill also calls for new safe houses to be constructed for women who are victimized by domestic violence. This is now waiting for Senate approval.

MEXICO: Women in Mexico have won some important victories. Probably the most ground-breaking legislation was passed by Mexico City lawmakers (though not in the rest of the country) in April 2007, legalizing abortion during the first trimester. This was upheld by Mexico's supreme court. Since the law was passed, 5,845 women have had legal abortions in the capital city. Mexico City has also implemented a policy aimed at reducing sexual harassment of women in public transport by placing women-only buses on the street. Still in the works is a law that will make it easier to prosecute those found harassing women in public spaces. Other important measures include the granting of paternity leave, which will not only promote gender equality, but will also aid in raising awareness of the need for men to participate in child care.

At the same time, in Ciudad Juarez there is an epidemic of rape and murder of young women — more than 600 since 1993. Domestic violence claims the lives of 14 women a day in Mexico, but the law in eight states does not consider domestic violence a crime and 12 do not penalize rape in marriage.

We can't discuss women in Latin America without mentioning migration. Because of the vastly unequal trade arrangements between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, workers are driven off the land to the cities to find work. Many others are forced to try their luck in the U.S., leaving families behind to depend on remittances and on the low salaries of peasant and poor women. In other cases, couples or families migrate together. Not only do they suffer poverty but also poor working conditions, pesticide poisoning, violence and death.

As we asked in the beginning: are women's conditions changing as a result of the left trend in Latin America? The answer is yes, but there is still a long way to go. In Latin America we've seen a striking transformation of many political, legal and economic rights. Social rights and changes in mind-set and culture will take longer. But the left trend — from social democracy to the movements toward socialism — has made significant progress so far and there will likely be more to come.

— Donna Goodman is a union and peace activist in New York's Hudson Valley. This article is based on a talk she delivered on behalf of the Caribbean and Latin America Support Project (CLASP) at a public meeting in the village of New Paltz, NY in March. She may be reached at



• SINGLE-PAYER SYSTEM MAKES SENSE: In an article entitled, " Should the Government Protect People's Health or Insurance Companies' Profits?," Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, makes a very practical argument:

"Private insurers spend more than 15% of the money they collect in premiums on administrative costs. By contrast, Medicare spends about 2%. Part of the insurers' administrative expenses go toward marketing — an expense that would be unnecessary in a universal Medicare system …. If the government can provide health insurance better and cheaper, then why do we need private insurers?"

— Full article at:

• THE BIG TAKEOVER: Investigative journalist Matt Taibbi wrote an article for the May 19 issue of Rolling Stone headlined "The Big Takeover" and subtitled, "The global economic crisis isn't about money — it's about power. How Wall Street insiders are using the bailout to stage a revolution." In it he wrote:

"The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class. But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.

— Full article at:

• ISRAELI SPYING IN THE U.S.: Reporter Christopher Ketcham has written a thorough and documented article about the great extent to which Tel Aviv spies on its Washington ally, noting:

"Israel runs one of the most aggressive and damaging espionage networks targeting the U.S. The fact of Israeli penetration into the country is not a subject oft-discussed in the media or in the circles of governance, due to the extreme sensitivity of the U.S.-Israel relationship coupled with the burden of the Israel lobby, which punishes legislators who dare to criticize the Jewish state …. Israel's spying on the U.S., however, is a matter of public record ….When the FBI produces its annual report to Congress concerning "Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage," Israel and its intelligence services often feature prominently as a threat second only to China. In 2005 the FBI noted, for example, that Israel maintains 'an active program to gather proprietary information within the United States.'"

— Full article at:



[Editor's Note: Strategic Forecasting Inc., otherwise known as, is not what we would term politically progressive but we rarely fail to find something interesting in its geopolitical analyses of international developments. The insights of Stratfor founder George Friedman in particular attract our attention, as in this March 23 article.]

By George Friedman

U.S. President Barack Obama released a video offering Iran congratulations on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday. Israeli President Shimon Peres also offered his best wishes, referring to “the noble Iranian people.” The joint initiative was received coldly in Tehran, however. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the video did not show that the United States had shifted its hostile attitude toward Iran.

The video is obviously part of Obama’s broader strategy of demonstrating that his administration has shifted U.S. policy, at least to the extent that it is prepared to open discussions with other regimes (with Iran being the hardest and most controversial case). The U.S. strategy is fairly straightforward: Obama is trying to create a new global perception of the United States. Global opinion was that former U.S. President George W. Bush was unwilling to engage with, and listen to, allies or enemies. Obama’s view is that that perception in itself harmed U.S. foreign policy by increasing suspicion of the United States. For Obama, offering New Year’s greetings to Iran is therefore part of a strategy to change the tone of all aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

Getting Peres to offer parallel greetings was undoubtedly intended to demonstrate to the Iranians that the Israelis would not block U.S. initiatives toward Iran. The Israelis probably were willing to go along with the greetings because they don’t expect them to go very far. They also want to show that they were not responsible for their failure, something critical in their relations with the Obama administration.

The Iranian response is also understandable. The United States has made a series of specific demands on Iran, and has worked to impose economic sanctions on Iran when Tehran has not complied. But Iran also has some fairly specific demands of the United States. It might be useful, therefore, to look at the Iranian view of the United States and the world through its eyes.
From the Iranian point of view, the United States has made two fundamental demands of Iran. The first is that Iran halt its military nuclear program. The second, a much broader demand, is that Iran stop engaging in what the United States calls terrorism. This ranges from support for Hezbollah to support for Shiite factions in Iraq. In return, the United States is prepared to call for a suspension of sanctions against Iran.

For Tehran, however, the suspension of sanctions is much too small a price to pay for major strategic concessions. First, the sanctions don’t work very well. Sanctions only work when most powers are prepared to comply with them. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese are prepared to systematically comply with sanctions, so there is little that Iran can afford that it can’t get. Iran’s problem is that it cannot afford much. Its economy is in shambles due more to internal problems than to sanctions. Therefore, in the Iranian point of view, the United States is asking for strategic concessions, yet offering very little in return.

Meanwhile, merely working on a nuclear device — regardless of how close or far Iran really is from having one — provides Iran with a dramatically important strategic lever. The Iranians learned from the North Korean experience that the United States has a nuclear fetish. Having a nuclear program alone was more important to Pyongyang than actually having nuclear weapons. U.S. fears that North Korea might someday have a nuclear device resulted in significant concessions from the United States, Japan and South Korea.

The danger of having such a program is that the United States — or some other country — might attack and destroy the associated facilities. Therefore, the North Koreans created a high level of uncertainty as to just how far along they were on the road to having a nuclear device and as to how urgent the situation was, raising and lowering alarms like a conductor in a symphony. The Iranians are following the same strategy. They are constantly shifting from a conciliatory tone to an aggressive one, keeping the United States and Israel under perpetual psychological pressure. The Iranians are trying to avoid an attack by keeping the intelligence ambiguous. Tehran’s ideal strategy is maintaining maximum ambiguity and anxiety in the West while minimizing the need to strike immediately. Actually obtaining a bomb would increase the danger of an attack in the period between a successful test and the deployment of a deliverable device.

What the Iranians get out of this is exactly what the North Koreans got: disproportionate international attention and a lever on other topics, along with something that could be sacrificed in negotiations. They also have a chance of actually developing a deliverable device in the confusion surrounding its progress. If so, Iran would become invasion- and even harassment-proof thanks to its apparent instability and ideology. From Tehran’s perspective, abandoning its nuclear program without substantial concessions, none of which have materialized as yet, would be irrational. And the Iranians expect a large payoff from all this.

This brings us to the Hezbollah/Iraq question, which in fact represents two very different issues. Iraq constitutes the greatest potential strategic threat to Iran. This is as ancient as Babylon and Persia, as modern as the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Iran wants guarantees that Iraq will never threaten it, and that U.S. forces in Iraq will never pose a threat to Iran. Tehran does not want promises alone; it wants a recognized degree of control over the Iraqi government, or at least negative control that would allow it to stop Baghdad from doing things Iran doesn’t want. To achieve this, Iran systematically has built its influence among factions in Iraq, permitting it to block Iraqi policies that Iran regards as dangerous.

The American demand that Iran stop meddling in Iraqi policies strikes the Iranians as if the United States is planning to use the new Baghdad regime to restore the regional balance of power. In fact, that is very much on Washington’s mind. This is completely unacceptable to Iran, although it might benefit the United States and the region. From the Iranian point of view, a fully neutral Iraq — with its neutrality guaranteed by Iranian influence — is the only acceptable outcome. The Iranians regard the American demand that Iran not meddle in Iraq as directly threatening Iranian national security.

There is then the issue of Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Islamist groups. Between 1979 and 2001, Iran represented the background of the Islamic challenge to the West: The Shia represented radical Islam. When al Qaeda struck, Iran and the Shia lost this place of honor. Now, al Qaeda has faded and Iran wants to reclaim its place. It can do that by supporting Hezbollah, a radical Shiite group that directly challenges Israel, as well as Hamas — a radical Sunni group — thus showing that Iran speaks for all of Islam, a powerful position in an arena that matters a great deal to Iran and the region. Iran’s support for these groups helps it achieve a very important goal at little risk. Meanwhile, the U.S. demand that Iran end this support is not matched by any meaningful counteroffer or by a significant threat.

Moreover, Tehran dislikes the Obama-Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan. That strategy involves talking with the Taliban, a group that Iran has been hostile toward historically. The chance that the United States might install a Taliban-linked government in Afghanistan represents a threat to Iran second only to the threat posed to it by Iraq.

The Iranians see themselves as having been quite helpful to the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as they helped Washington topple both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In 2001, they offered to let U.S. aircraft land in Iran, and assured Washington of the cooperation of pro-Iranian factions in Afghanistan. In Iraq, they provided intelligence and helped keep the Shiite population relatively passive after the invasion in 2003. But Iranians see Washington as having betrayed implicit understandings that in return for these services, the Iranians would enjoy a degree of influence in both countries. And the U.S. opening to the Taliban is the last straw.

Iran views Obama’s New Year greetings within this context. To them, Obama has not addressed the core issues between the two countries. In fact, apart from videos, Obama’s position on Iran does not appear different from the Bush position. The Iranian leadership does not see why it should respond more favorably to the Obama administration than it did to the Bush administration. Tehran wants to be very sure that Obama understands that the willingness alone to talk is insufficient; some indications of what is to be discussed and what might be offered are necessary.

Many in the U.S. administration believe that the weak Iranian economy might shape the upcoming Iranian presidential election. Undoubtedly, the U.S. greetings were timed to influence the election. Washington has tried to influence internal Iranian politics for decades, constantly searching for reformist elements. The U.S. hope is that someone might be elected in Iran who is so obsessed with the economy that he would trade away strategic and geopolitical interests in return for some sort of economic aid. There are undoubtedly candidates who would be interested in economic aid, but none who are prepared to trade away strategic interests. Nor could they even if they wanted to. The Iran-Iraq war is burned into the popular Iranian consciousness; any candidate who appeared willing to see a strong Iraq would lose the election. American analysts are constantly confusing an Iranian interest in economic aid with a willingness to abandon core interests. But this hasn’t happened, and isn’t happening now.

This is not to say that the Iranians won’t bargain. Beneath the rhetoric, they are practical to the extreme. Indeed, the rhetoric is part of the bargaining. What is not clear is whether Obama is prepared to bargain. What will he give for the things he wants? Economic aid is not enough for Iran, and in any event, the idea of U.S. economic aid for Iran during a time of recession is a non-starter. Is Obama prepared to offer Iran a dominant voice in Iraq and Afghanistan? How insistent is Obama on the Hezbollah and Hamas issue? What will he give if Iran shuts down its nuclear program? It is not clear that Obama has answers to these questions.

Rebuilding the U.S. public image is a reasonable goal for the first 100 days of a presidency. But soon it will be summer, and the openings Obama has made will have to be walked through, with tough bargaining. In the case of Iran — one of the toughest cases of all — it is hard to see how Washington can give Tehran the things it wants because that would make Iran a major regional power. And it is hard to see how Iran could give away the things the Americans are demanding.

Obama indicated that it would take time for his message to generate a positive response from the Iranians. It is more likely that unless the message starts to take on more substance that pleases the Iranians, the response will remain unchanged. The problem wasn’t Bush or Clinton or Reagan, the problem was the reality of Iran and the United States. Only if a third power frightened the Iranians sufficiently — a third power that also threatened the United States — would U.S.-Iranian interests be brought together. But Russia, at least for now, is working very hard to be friendly with Iran.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5, 2009 Religion & the White House

AlterNet March 5, 2009
Is Obama Bringing Too Much Religion into the White House?
By Liliana Segura

Now that Bush is history, one thing we can be sure of is a return to the traditional barrier dividing church and state. Right? Not quite.

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has raised eyebrows by mixing faith and politics in a way that has dismayed some of his secular supporters.

First there was that Jesus-laden invocation by conservative Pastor Rick Warren at the inauguration. Then, an executive order that, rather than doing anything to dismantle Bush’s faith-based initiatives, bolstered them with a new "advisory council on faith." And then, last month, U.S. News and World Report published an article with the following announcement as its title: "A New Tradition for Obama's Presidential Events: Opening With a Prayer."

"In a departure from previous presidents," reported Dan Gilgoff, writing on the U.S. News blog God and Country, "(Obama's) public rallies are opening with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House."

Apparently, not even the born-again W. indulged in such practices; as U.S. administrations go, putting a presidential stamp of approval on a prayer is a new phenomenon.

"Though invocations have long been commonplace at presidential inaugurations and certain events like graduations or religious services at which presidents are guests, the practice of commissioning and vetting prayers for presidential rallies is unprecedented in modern history, according to religion-and-politics experts."

That organized religion would find a home in Obama's White House should surprise no one who followed the race for the presidency, a period that saw Obama repeatedly assert his devotion to Christianity in the face of rumors that he was actually a Muslim. But the steps the Obama administration has taken since then go far beyond the bounds of mixing faith and politics.

"If a similar thing had been done by President Bush's White House, I guarantee you there would have been a lot of people crying foul," Bill Wichterman, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison, under George W. Bush complained to Gilgoff.

Instead, the policy seems simply to be flying under the radar, despite its implications, which are pretty significant.

"The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), told Gilgoff.

It is not the first time Lynn's organization has expressed dismay over Obama's religious initiatives. The AU Web home page currently exhorts: "Mr. President, Please Fix Your 'Faith-Based' Program!" -- a cry over Obama's creation of an "advisory council on faith" last month.

The Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was founded via executive order on Feb. 5 to be a new office of the executive branch. According to the order, the council "shall be composed of not more than 25 members appointed by the president from among individuals who are not officers or employees of the federal government." They will serve one-year terms "and serve at the pleasure of the president."

Heading up the office is Josh DuBois, the 26-year-old former pastor who advised Obama during the campaign. It was DuBois who reportedly campaigned heavily for the controversial decision to have Warren deliver the inaugural invocation, a move that angered many defenders of gay rights. (That said, the advisory council also includes Fred Davie, the openly gay president of the New York nonprofit Public/Private Ventures.)

In fairness, just as Obama was open about his plan to keep intact Bush's faith-based initiatives, he also made no secret of his plan to create such an office. As a candidate, he stated that he would expand the number of religious organizations eligible for federal funding. In a speech delivered on the campaign trail in Ohio last summer, Obama criticized the faith-based initiatives under Bush as "used to promote partisan interests," pledging that his would be different.

"I still believe it's a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular," Obama said. "But it has to be a real partnership -- not a photo-op. That's what it will be when I'm president. I'll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart -- it will be a critical part of my administration."

Strange Bedfellows

Obama's executive order came the same day as the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event held in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton (and whose keynote speakers have ranged from politicians to the likes of Bono and Mother Teresa). The event itself occupies a pretty strange space between religion and politics, particularly as it is organized by the shadowy organization known as The Family, an "international network of evangelical activists in government, military and business" as described by journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

According to Sharlet, "The Family is dedicated to this idea that Christianity has gotten it all wrong for 2,000 years by focusing on the poor, the suffering and the weak. … The Family says that instead, what Christians should do is minister to the up-and-out -- as opposed to the down-and-out -- to those that are already powerful. Because if they can win those people for Christ, they win the whole deal."

This would seem to conflict with the brand of Christianity Obama has adopted, which he described at the National Prayer Breakfast as being motivated by his work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. "It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me," Obama told his audience. "It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose -- His purpose."

Indeed, Obama's executive order focuses largely on the work done by churches and religious institutions in under-resourced communities. "The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another -- or even religious groups over secular groups," he told the audience. "It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state."

However well-intentioned it sounded, the American Civil Liberties Union was quick to voice its alarm over the president's order, pointing out that the mission of the religious advisory council will also be "to advise the president and the White House faith-based office on how to distribute federal dollars, and also advise on a range of other issues, such as AIDS and women's reproductive health care" -- areas where religious views present nothing if not a conflict of interest.

"Although former President George W. Bush gave prominence to his faith-based initiative and informally consulted with individual religious leaders, even he never formed a government advisory committee made up primarily of clergy," read a Feb. 5 ACLU press release. Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, described Obama as "heading into uncharted and dangerous waters."

"There is no historical precedent for presidential meddling in religion -- or religious leaders meddling in federal policy -- through a formal government advisory committee made up mostly of the president's chosen religious leaders," she said.

Many people who celebrate Obama's overhaul of Bush's faith-based initiatives are doing so based on his promise that his administration will cut off funding for groups that discriminate based on background or sexual orientation. But as Americans United for Separation of Church and State points out,the order he signed "leaves the entire architecture of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative intact -- every rule, every regulation, every executive order." Groups that apply for aid will be vetted by the Department of Justice on a case-by-case basis. Along with the promised expansion of groups eligible for aid, this will make such a promise difficult to enforce.

Given how rapidly the notion of "faith-based initiatives" has evolved, some ask whether we shouldn't be scrapping them altogether instead of trying to expand and improve on them. In a New York Times op-ed last week, Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, called it "truly dismaying" that "amid all the discussion about President Obama’s version of faith-based community initiatives, there has been such a widespread reluctance to question the basic assumption that government can spend money on religiously based enterprises without violating the First Amendment. ... This shows how easy it is to institutionalize a bad idea based on unexamined assumptions about service to a greater good."

"We are moving blindly ahead with faith-based federal spending as if it were not a radical break with our past," Jacoby warned. "If faith-based initiatives, first institutionalized by the executive fiat of a conservative Republican president, become even more entrenched under a liberal Democratic administration, there will be no going back."