Archive for June, 2009

What Will Obama’s Critics Say Now?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

What can we expect from President Barack Obama’s critics, now that he has harshly condemned Iran’s violent crackdown on those protesting the election?

1. They will say he has not gone far enough. Why did he only “strongly condemn” the “unjust actions.” Why not “unhesitatingly denounce” or “full-throatedly repudiate” or “unequivocally damn.” And, come to think of it, why did he stop at “unjust actions”? Why not “evil barbarities”? And why refer to the country as “Iran”? Why not “The Persian Devil”?

Really, they will say. Does “appalled and outraged” even scratch the surface, when President Obama could have said the United States is “seething with apocalyptic fury”?

2. They will say he did not speak up soon enough – ignoring the fact that people from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to conservative columnist David Brooks to some of the world’s foremost Iranian experts have called Obama’s response exactly right, noting that aligning too strongly with the demonstrators will play right into the hands of the corrupt regime.

3. They will compare his response to Jimmy Carter’s response to the hostage crisis. (Really! They already are!) Because the taking of American hostages is the same thing as a disputed Iranian election.

4. They will say Obama’s response was not sincere. Because they were not in the room when the reporter asked him to elaborate on his condemnation of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, and the president said: “It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking.”

“This is what we’ve witnessed,” President Obama said. ”We’ve seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands of Iranians marching in silence. We’ve seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and that their voices are heard.

“Above all, we’ve seen courageous women stand up to the brutality and threats, and we’ve experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets.

“While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.”

But Obama’s critics will no doubt come out swinging. Because he did not say: “You’re with us or you’re against us.”

No Big Deal

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

In Iran, the censorship has been more sophisticated, amounting to an extraordinary cyberduel. It feels at times as if communications within the country are being strained through a sieve, as the government slows down Web access and uses the latest spying technology to pinpoint opponents.

New York Times, June 23, 2009

I voted today, against the recall of Akron mayor Don Plusquellic.

It wasn’t such a big thing. I walked into Grace Lutheran Church, between two small American flags planted into the ground. There was no line. I found my name on a sheaf of papers hanging from the wall by the door, spelled correctly (with both of my middle initials, N and K, a rarity these days), along with my party affiliation: DEM. I found my precinct, 8-R, signed my name in a voting book, then took my ballot in a folder to a nearby privacy table, and neatly filled in the oval registering my preference to keep Plusquellic in office.

“We are having difficulty getting updates to u as so many of our contacts been arrested – life here is v/v/dangerous now”

A reliable Iranian source, writing on Twitter, posted on Huffingtonpost this morning

I slid my ballot into an automated machine, and noticed on the digital window that I was the 105th person to cast my vote in that machine so far today.

“You did your civic duty,” a lovely poll worker named Laura told me. She handed me an “I voted” sticker, with an American flag in a circle. I promptly stuck it on my T-shirt.

There was only one question on the ballot today. For or against the recall. It really wasn’t such a big deal.

“Getting reliable news has become extremely difficult. Most of my sources have been arrested and I think about the few remaining ones and am very worried.”

A reliable Iranian source, writing on Twitter, posted on Huffingtonpost this morning

On my way out, I passed a sign in for pre-K classes. A large poster of a smiling sun on the wall. And a welcome bear blowing a long horn. Inexplicably, on a table in the hallway, a stuffed Pittsburgh Steelers bear sat next to a Pittsburgh Steelers cheerleader bear.

“We voted,” one woman said to another as she passed me, stepped out the door into the sunshine.

I was in and out in less than five minutes. Really, no big deal.

They gathered, the women in black, at Nilofar Square to mourn Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian student cut down by a single bullet … I sat among the mourners in late afternoon, under the plane trees, as candles burned and a prayer was said …

As the sound of the prayer rose, the regular city police joined in. This was too much for the Basij militia, the regime’s plainclothes shock troops, who arrived on motorbikes and, wielding sticks, broke up the gathering of about 60 people.

Roger Cohen, New York Times, June 23, 2009

When I returned home, I logged on to the “Share Your Experience” voting site, set up by the Voting Rights Institute of Ohio, at www.myvoteohio.com.

I plugged in my name, address, and email. Near the bottom, there is a scroll down list of potential problems I might have encountered, including: “voter intimidation,” “improper behavior by a pollworker,” “disability access problem,” and “problem related to non-English language assistance.”

Seeing no listing for “Pittsburgh Steelers bear on table outside voting booth,” I noted only that I had a pleasant experience, and that Laura had helped me vote. I submitted the comment with a click.

Somewhere today, my vote will be tallied, along with all the rest of them. I have every faith that the counting will be fair and honest. By tonight, the voters will have spoken. Plusquellic will either be recalled, or he won’t be.

Honestly, it’s no big deal.

Akron’s Recall Election

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Voters in Akron go to the polls today to decide whether to recall Mayor Don Plusquellic. They should reject the recall, and let Plusquellic serve the sixth term that he won in November 2007.

I’d urge anyone still on the fence to read two articles.

The first is this editorial, by the Akron Beacon Journal:

Akron has faced two challenges, in particular, the past two decades: improving the quality of education and navigating a harsh economic transition, from an industrial to a knowledge economy. The mayor has been relentless in addressing both. Consider his championing of the city schools, pressing for improvement and campaigning for new resources. Or his pursuit of business opportunities … Or the push for a biomedical corridor and the connection to the high-tech realm in Israel, the city seeing the future and seeking to build on its strengths.

The second is this article in the Journal by Stuart Warner, “A Walk Down Main Street, 24 Years Later”:

”As Main Streets go, Akron’s already went,” read the headline that accompanied Warner’s Corner on Oct. 16, 1985.

I counted at least 52 businesses gone bust that day — just between Cedar and Market …That was about 14 months before Don Plusquellic became Akron’s mayor.

In light of the recall, Warner decided to walk the same stretch again. He finds a much safer, more tolerant city, one that is relentlessly bucking the rust belt trend of decline:

On some summer weekend nights now, when the Aeros are at the stadium and concerts are rocking at Lock 3 and Musica, the streets are teeming with people

I’ve only lived here three years, but it seems clear to me that over 23 years in office, Plusquellic has been a driving force behind the city’s surge.

Vote to reject the recall today, and let our mayor get back to work.

Polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to  7:30 p.m. Vote at your normal polling place, unless you’ve received notification otherwise. If you have any questions about where to vote, visit http://www.summitcountyboe.com or call 330-643-5200.

Here’s some further questions and answers about the recall, from the Akron Beacon Journal.

The Blinders of Obama’s Critics

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

When I saw this morning that William Bennett, of all people, has joined the growing chorus criticizing President Obama on Iran, it put me over the edge.

Coming as it did on top of John McCain’s criticism on Face the Nation Sunday, which added to a week’s worth of complaint, much of it coming from Republicans and right-wing blowhards.

“He is the President of the United States,” Bennett said on CNN. ”If he will not side with these young people against a religious autocracy that is beating the hell out of people, what is the point of being the moral leader of the free world?”

Hm. That’s interesting.

Let’s remember, these critics are the same people who, during the election campaign, harshly condemned Obama’s position that he would end the Bush policy of isolating Iran, and, instead, open direct talks.

Here is what William Bennett said, writing with Seth Leibsohn in the National Review in June:

Barack Obama’s stance toward Iran is as troubling as it is dangerous. By stating and maintaining that he would negotiate with Iran, ‘without preconditions,’ and within his first year of office, he will give credibility to, and reward for his intransigence, the head of state of the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. Such a meeting will also undermine and send the exact wrong signal to Iranian dissidents.

Wow, Bill. You nailed that one on the head.

Bush labeled Iran part of the Axis of Evil. His war toppled Saddam Hussein, immeasurably strengthening Iran’s hand. Under his administration, American diplomats worldwide were prohibited from dealing with their Iranian peers.

“The result,” Helene Cooper wrote in the NY Times’ Week in Review yesterday, ”according to many experts here and in Iran, was that Iranians, including reformers, swallowed their criticism of the hard-line regime and united against the common enemy. Iranians with reformist sympathies even began advising Americans to stop openly supporting them, lest that open them to attack as pawns of America.”

But don’t take Helene’s word for it.

Here’s Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who knows a bit more about Iran than Bill Bennett:

“Behind closed doors, most Iranian officials have long recognized that the ‘death to America’ culture of 1979 is bankrupt, and that Iran will never achieve its enormous potential as long as relations with the United States remain adversarial,” he told Cooper. “If Tehran’s hardliners are incapable of making nice with an American president named Barack Hussein Obama who preaches mutual respect and wishes them a happy Nowruz, it’s pretty obvious the problem is in Tehran, not Washington.”

Against the advice of just about every conservative voice, including Bill Bennett’s, Obama came to office promising direct talks with Iran, without preconditions. Once in office, he videotaped a new year’s message to the Iranian people and leaders, referring to Iran as the “Islamic Republic,” and quoting a Persian poet who died seven centuries ago. He removed the ban on U.S. diplomats dealing with their Iranian peers worldwide. And, as Cooper points out, in Cairo, he took the unprecedented step of taking responsibility for the U.S. role in the 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government.

All of which sent a crucial message to those inside Iran who are now taking to the streets en masse.

But don’t take my word for it.

“Afshin Molavi,” Cooper writes, ”an Iran expert at the New America Foundation, said that the vast majority of Iranians today want better relations with the United States, and middle-class Iranians in particular, he said, were hoping that the Iranian regime would capitalize on Mr. Obama’s much talked about unclenched fist.

“Even though Mr. Moussavi shared the leadership’s commitment to Iran’s nuclear program, many middle-class Iranians believed that he would be better able than Mr. Ahmadinejad to strike a warmer relationship with Mr. Obama, said Mr. Molavi, author of ‘Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran’ (Norton). ‘When the election results were announced, for the Iranian middle class, it was not only an insult and an injustice, but it dashed their hopes for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement and told them that they would continue to be isolated in the world.’”

Yet Bennett, in his infinite wisdom, has the audacity to go on CNN’s State of the Union yesterday and say this of Obama’s Iran response: “He needs to say it in no uncertain terms. This is very disappointing, as far as I’m concerned. This was the president to whom the whole world was looking. . . . This is a president about hope, he’s about the future. This is a guy who was a community organizer. He missed it. He missed the opportunity.”

How thick are the blinders?

How do I put this in simply? Obama’s smug critics have already been proven wrong. When Bill Bennett wrote in the National Review one year ago, “Barack Obama’s position on negotiating with U.S. enemies betrays a profound misreading of history,” it was Bennett who was misreading history. The moment was ripe for rapprochement, and Obama seized it.

President Obama did not spur this revolution, and he has taken great pains not to be perceived as fomenting it. But, as a conservative friend of mine — also critical of Obama’s response — admitted in an email the other day: “In the end, much of this has to do with Obama. The protests would not have happened without Obama.”

It is because of President Obama that this opportunity exists.

It’s high time for his right wing critics to recognize this. To recognize that the hard-line, warmongering approach of their standard bearer helped create this mess in the first place. And to give this president who has already shown such good judgment and instincts in opening the door to Iran – at great political risk – the benefit of the doubt, instead of relentlessly piling on.

I daresay, a scant few months into this new administration, doing so would even be patriotic.

Mother’s Day in Iran

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

I read a lot today about the fast-moving situation in Iran. Nothing more moving than Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times.

“Iran’s women stand in the vanguard,” he wrote …

For days now, I’ve seen them urging less courageous men on. I’ve seen them get beaten and return to the fray. “Why are you sitting there?” one shouted at a couple of men perched on the sidewalk on Saturday. “Get up! Get up!”

Another green-eyed woman, Mahin, aged 52, staggered into an alley clutching her face and in tears. Then, against the urging of those around her, she limped back into the crowd moving west toward Freedom Square. Cries of “Death to the dictator!” and “We want liberty!” accompanied her.

It’s hard not to feel chills when you read stuff like this.

“Can’t the United Nations help us?” one woman asked me. I said I doubted that very much. “So,” she said, “we are on our own.”

It’s crazy that in this day and age, there really is nothing we can do to help. No place to send a donation. No one to lobby with a letter-writing campaign. No business to boycott.

“Just off Revolution Street,” Cohen writes, ”I walked into a pall of tear gas …

I’d lit a cigarette minutes before — not a habit but a need — and a young man collapsed into me shouting, “Blow smoke in my face.” Smoke dispels the effects of the gas to some degree.

I did what I could and he said, “We are with you” in English and with my colleague we tumbled into a dead end — Tehran is full of them — running from the searing gas and police. I gasped and fell through a door into an apartment building where somebody had lit a small fire in a dish to relieve the stinging.

There were about 20 of us gathered there, eyes running, hearts racing. A 19-year-old student was nursing his left leg, struck by a militiaman with an electric-shock-delivering baton. “No way we are turning back,” said a friend of his as he massaged that wounded leg.

We are with you.

‘A Misguided Majority’

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

As I read Huffington Post’s live blogging of the violent crackdown going on at this hour against freedom-fighters in Tehran, I’m struck by a parallel to this week’s Torah portion.

Here, for instance, is a report from a BBC reporter:

Security forces were everywhere in central Tehran in the late afternoon and early evening.

As I spent a couple of hours driving around in heavy traffic I could see thousands of men, some uniformed members of the military riot squads, some units of revolutionary guard, and everywhere basijis – militiamen who look like street toughs.

The security men were deployed on every street corner, in long lines down the sides of the roads, and in all the main squares.

The basijis wore riot helmets and carried big clubs. It was designed to intimidate, and while I was there, it was working.

And here is a report from one of the blogger’s contacts in Iran:

You couldn’t imagin what I saw tonight, I walked down many streets(Vali asr, keshavars, amir abad, Fatemi, Shademan, Satarkhan, Khosro), and I was injured by tears gas, but the main thing : The big killer group, called “Basij”, weared our special military service group -”Sepah”- dresses and they were all armed , I saw by myself one of them had only around 15 years old!!!! and he had the shot order! I saw a girl injured by gon shot (in Amir abad St.)! and there weren’t enough ambulances . I walked through Shademan St. they start shooting , a young boy in front of my eyes murdered , and 3 other people were injured , there were also a big fight between people and Basij at Tohid Sq. 7 people was murdered there, I walked from my company to my home , It was taken 4 hours and I couldn’t be able to make a video , cause I was in the middle of war!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This week’s parsha is Sh’lah L’kha, from the Book of Numbers. It’s the story of the Israeli spies, one from each of the 12 tribes, who go out to scout the Promised Land. Ten return with stories about how the occupants of the land are powerful and numerous, striking fear into the hearts of the Israelites, causing them to doubt God. Only two — Caleb and Joshua — stand against the ten.

“Have no fear then of the people of the country,” Joshua says.

Here’s the midrashic interpretation:

“Joshua and Caleb risk their lives by acting with integrity and standing up to a misguided majority. In the end, it is the majority who will die in the wilderness and the people of integrity and courage who will survive to see their dreams realized.”

Let this ancient story serve as fair warning to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and their band of violent thugs.

‘The Administration Has It Exactly Right’

Friday, June 19th, 2009

I don’t often find myself rushing to quote NY Times columnist David Brooks. He’s conservative, he supported McCain in the election, and he’s a regular critic of President Obama.

All of which makes it even more noteworthy that in his column this morning, he applauded Obama for the administration’s response to the uprising in Iran.

Yes, Obama has been legalistic, supporting the protestors while recognizing Iran’s sovereignty, and therefore short on sincerity and heart.

But as Brooks writes: “When you don’t know what’s happening, it’s sensible to do as little as possible because anything you do might cause more harm than good.”

What’s important is that the Obama administration understands the scope of what is happening. And on the big issue, my understanding is that the administration has it exactly right.

The core lesson of these events is that the Iranian regime is fragile at the core … From now on, the central issue of Iran-Western relations won’t be the nuclear program. The regime is more fragile than the program. The regime is more likely to go away than the program.

As the AP notes, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned ominously today that his regime will crack down on protestors, has already sought to use Obama’s words to paint this as an American-fomented uprising.

“Khamenei reacted strongly,” The AP writes, ”saying Obama’s statements contradicted the president’s stated goal of opening dialogue with Iran and the conciliatory tone of other recent American messages.”

“The U.S. president said ‘We were waiting for a day like this to see people on the street,’” Khamenei said. “They write to us and say they respect the Islamic Republic and then they make comments like this. … Which one should we believe?”

There are things Obama can do, Brooks writes, to help hasten the fall of the regime, including economic and cultural sanctions, presidential visits to the United States for key dissidents, and “the unapologetic condemnation of the regime’s barbarities.”

Unfortunately, it looks like our president may have ample opportunity to employ the latter in the days to come.