Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Protestant leader welcomes the words of Pope Francis

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Jim Wallis is a Protestant Christian leader for social change; editor of Sojourner's Magazine; and author of On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. I was introduced to Jim Wallis while attending a progressive seminary in the late 1980s, and I continue to be inspired by his work.

 It's typical of Wallis to publicly celebrate and make common cause with Pope Francis. In a piece titled Pope Francis: We Need You in Washington, D.C.,Wallis writes:

Suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost miraculously, the values of simplicity, humility, welcome, and the priority of the poor have burst on to the international stage. A new pope named Francis is reminding us that love is also a verb -- choosing the name Francis because of his commitment to the poor, to peace, and creation in sharp contrast to the values of Washington, D.C.  

Last week the House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps. The previous week marked the 5th anniversary of the financial collapse, and showed more American inequality than before the recession. And now we face a threatened shutdown of the government unless the health care promised to tens of millions of uninsured people is repealed.  

Pondering all that, I saw the interview with Pope Francis in America magazine and his profile in the new issue of Sojourners. And from every direction, things that the new pope was saying were breaking through the political news cycle. Even my students at Georgetown were telling me that their young friends, Christians or not, were putting Francis quotes up on their Facebook pages. 

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Drum roll: Wendy Davis, the next governor of Texas!

Wendy Davis, Courtesy of Wikipedia. 

We've not forgotten those red tennis shoes worn by Texas State Senator Sen. Wendy Davis when she filibustered 11 hours for abortion rights against "Texans without uteruses."

Wendy's performance on that occasion brought her national prominence and since then, a groundswell of support to run for governor of the Lone Star State.

Here's the good news:

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis and her advisers have begun informing influential Democrats that she intends to run for governor in 2014, according to multiple sources familiar with Davis’s conversations.

The Fort Worth legislator made a national name for herself in June when she mounted a filibuster against new proposed abortion clinic regulations. Texas Republicans ultimately passed those restrictions into law in a special session called by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Davis advisers declined to confirm that she will enter the governor’s race, but Davis consultant Hector Nieto said the senator has made up her mind about 2014 and will unveil her plans next week.
(PHOTOS: Wendy Davis’s filibuster)

“Sen. Davis has decided what she will do and she looks forward to making that announcement with her grass-roots supporters on Oct. 3,” Nieto said.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The humble Pope Francis

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Pope Francis is capturing this non-Catholic's attention and making me smile on occasion as well. Frank Bruni at the NY Times captures how Francis' humility paradoxically empowers his leadership in response to the usual controversial issues:

Bruni writes:

IT’S about time. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has surveyed the haughty scolds in its ranks, noted their fixation on matters of sexual morality above all others and said enough is enough. I’m not being cheeky with this one-word response. Hallelujah. 

But it wasn’t the particulars of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking message in an interview published last week that stopped me in my tracks, gave fresh hope to many embittered Catholics and caused hardened commentators to perk up.

It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term “infallible” is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. 

And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.

What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it.
And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.

That’s what stayed with me, not the olive branch he extended to gay people or the way he brushed aside the contraception wars but his personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words. Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The best and the worst of Obama's leadership in the Syrian crisis

Some of the comments by the White House and the media regarding the latest developments following Obama's threat to attack Syria have been laughable, and I don't often laugh at desperate attempts to give a favorable spin to the hard truth.

Ron Fournier, a seasoned political reporter, cuts through the nonsense and reports the "best and the worst" of Obama's leadership in the current crisis with Syria:

The good news is we're not at war. The bad news is … almost everything else about President Obama's handling of Syria -- the fumbling and flip-flopping and marble-mouthing -- undercut his credibility, and possibly with it his ability to lead the nation and world.

As he addressed a global audience Tuesday night, liberal elites blindly accepted White House fiction that Russian intervention this week was somehow part of Obama's master plan. Their conservative counterparts practically rooted against a diplomatic breakthrough, preferring an Obama black eye over peace.

Obama won! Obama lost! The fact is it's too soon to keep score. In the long view of this past week, I suspect the Syria standoff will come to be an example of the best and worst of Obama's leadership. Granted, in the heat of the moment, it's far easier to catalogue the worst.


Open-minded: The man elected in part as repudiation of President George W. Bush's narrow approach to decision-making never closed off his options. He is paying a price for waffling (more on that later), but the president deserves credit for rethinking his plan to wage war without congressional approval. For anybody unwilling to cut Obama some slack, ask yourself: What would Bush and Dick Cheney have done?

Unflappable: From all public appearances, this was the "no-drama Obama" his aides brag about. Certainly, he was affected by public criticism and even swayed by polling, but the president kept searching for a way out of a complicated situation. He may have stumbled into peace but that's better than rushing into war.

Principles: He deserves credit for trying to do something about the slaughter of innocents. The "red line" that looks laughably opaque today will look better in time if (and this is a big if) Syrian chemical attacks stop. In his address from the White House, Obama made a compelling moral argument to respond to last month's chemical attack in Syria. "The world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature
of chemical weapons," the president said.


Naive about the levers of power: Where to start? Obama reversed course on congressional authorization at the last minute, after a private chat with his chief of staff, and to the surprise of his national-security team -- all in violation of presidential best practices. He then left the country on a quixotic trip to Russia, allowing misgivings to grow in Congress and the public before he could build a case for striking Syria. Boxed in, Obama seized upon a Russian proposal to put Syria's weapons in the hands of the international community. It's an impractical solution, a fig leaf. Either Obama trusts Russian President Vladimir Putin (a mistake) or he is a partner in deceit (an outrage). A Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House, and who requested anonymity to avoid political retribution, told me, "This has been one of the most humiliating episodes in presidential history."

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Muddling the issues for attacking Syria

The news this morning on the latest developments between the US and Syria is confusing. As a result of Secretary of State John Kerry's rhetorical comment the other day, Syrian President Assad has apparently agreed to a Russian proposal to turn over all of his chemical weapons to international supervision. In the meantime, Secretary Kerry has described US plans for a military strike against Syria as "unbelievably small," and as far as we know, President Obama still plans to make a case for attacking Syria in his speech this evening. Even Eugene Robinson, one of Obama's most loyal supporters among the punditry, is confused. In his recent column at the Washington Post, Robinson asks, "Does Obama want to attack Syria or not?"

The Obama administration keeps undermining its own case for a punitive strike in Syria. If the president wants permission from Congress and support from the American people, he and his aides had better get their story straight.

The “messaging,” to use an unfortunate Washington term, has been confusing, contradictory and halfhearted. The nation simply will not approve going to war if its leaders cannot coherently explain what they want to do, how they plan to do it and why.

Secretary of State John Kerry threw mud into turbid waters Monday when he said the attack would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” This punch line came at the end of a string of similar assurances: no “troops on the ground,” nothing “prolonged,” merely a “very targeted, short-term” affair.

But if the attack is designed to be so limited, why bother? Why not just send a special envoy to give Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad a stern talking-to, followed perhaps by a reassuring hug? 

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Monday, September 9, 2013

House liberals offer alternative to attacking Syria

Dem Rep. Barbara Lee
The use of military force only as a last resort has been preached over the years, but it has too often not been practiced by our nation's leadership. Hopefully, it's an idea whose time has come. Writing for the Washington Post, Greg Sargent notes:

With President Obama set to address the nation from the Oval Office tomorrow night, this week may determine whether he can win Congressional support for military action in Syria — and here’s a new development that could complicate his quest.

As early as tomorrow, I’m told, House liberals will introduce their own resolution on Syria that would call on the United States to exhaust all diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated political solution to the Syrian conflict, and all means for using international law to hold Assad accountable, rather than opting for military intervention.

The White House has repeatedly argued it has already exhausted all diplomatic options. House liberals disagree, and intend to try to put it to a vote.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

"Only politicians and defense contractors want this war"

Syrian President Bashar Assad
US President Barack Obama
We should all be engaged in some hard thinking this week as the Obama Administration goes all out to convince us that launching a war with Syria is the "last resort" available in responding to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people.

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass puts the matter into perspective:

Dogs aren't as beloved in Syria as they are here. In the Middle East, our four-footed friends are generally considered unclean. They don't live inside houses. They're not allowed near a kitchen.
And they don't legislate war policy or decide the fate of millions of people.
But watching President Barack Obama stumble through his news conference from the G-20 summit last week and trying to talk us into war with Syria, I couldn't help thinking about dogs.

It was a stupid thought, yes, but I didn't put it there. One of the president's men put it there. A guy named David Axelrod, who brought it up on Twitter.

Axelrod, the Democratic mouthpiece of Chicago mayors, is the guy who aligned himself with an inexperienced Illinois legislative back-bencher and ended up installing him in the White House.

And after the president announced he would seek congressional approval for military strikes against Syria, Axelrod signaled his journalists by spinning them a tweet.

"Big move by POTUS," read Axelrod's tweet. "Consistent with his principles. Congress is now the dog that caught the car. Should be a fascinating week!"

Consistent with his principles? Like the drone strikes? Like the NSA surveillance? Like the IRS investigations of conservative groups? Like no answers about the dead from Benghazi? All those principles?

If Axelrod thought last week was fascinating, this week should be even more entertaining. The president doesn't have the votes in Congress for his war in Syria, but he'll try to make his case in a national television address scheduled for Tuesday.

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Syria: a moral crisis requires a moral response

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We're talking here about Obama's mistake in issuing a red line dare to the Assad regime in Syria. According to U.S. intelligence reports, Assad took the dare and used chemical weapons against his own people. In response to this tragedy, President Obama and many of his Left Wing followers have suddenly morphed from doves into hawks.

When madness seems to be enveloping the minds of previously sensible people, including the mind of our Nobel peace prize-winning president, it's always a relief to take a time out, breathe deeply, and read what Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners Magazine, has to say about the matter at hand:
When a head of state is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 of his people and has used chemical weapons against innocent civilians -- the world needs to respond. In one massive attack, the evidence appears to show that 1,429 people, including 400 children, suffered horrible deaths from chemical weapons banned by the international community. That is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response. Doing nothing is not an option. But how should we respond, and what are moral principles for that response?

For Christians, I would suggest there are two principles that should guide our thinking. Other people of faith and moral sensibility might agree with this two-fold moral compass.

  1. Our first commitment must be to the most vulnerable and those in most jeopardy. Two million Syrian refugees have now had to leave their country and fully a third of the Syrian people are now homeless in their own country. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, now has nearly 1 million Syrian refugees. Humanitarian organizations are calling this the worst crisis in two decades. Our Scriptures tell us that our first and deepest response should always be to the most vulnerable who are so often forgotten by the world. The world must respond to those millions of vulnerable and jeopardized people. Faith communities all over the world must respond and call upon our governments to do so as well. The U.S., U.K., and other concerned nations must do that -- immediately. And the international faith community should lead the way for a global response to millions of people in deep distress and danger.
  2. The other task for people of faith and moral conscience is to work to reduce the conflict. Conflict resolution is always the first goal of peacemakers, whom Jesus calls us, as Christians, to always be. How do we act in ways that could lessen violence rather than escalate it? How do we unite the world community against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, put him on trial in absentia to prove that he used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, bring his criminality to the United Nations and other international bodies, and then surround him with global rejection, isolation, and punishment? How do we use this opportunity of his criminal behavior to pressure and even embarrass those nations who have supported him to support him no more?
These two principles make many of us in the faith community wary of the proposed military strikes that are now being considered by the White House, Congress, and others. Why?

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Good question: has there ever been a successful humanitarian intervention?

In case you're wondering where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was when the Obama Administration began its drumbeat to war with Syria, it's important to remember that Hagel's nomination as defense secretary was originally opposed by his own party members as he was described as anti-interventionist. That could be the reason he appears to have been left out of the current war preparations.
At the Christian Century, Steve Thorngate raises more than one good question about the Obama Administration's drumbeat to war with Syria. Leading off his thoughtful analysis of the wisdom of pursuing "nebulous and unlikely goals via deadly, expensive missiles that are all too concrete," Thorngate writes:

James Fallows is impressed with Obama’s decision to go to Congress. So, presumably, are the almost 40,000 people who signed this MoveOn petition. And sure: if your main concern is (1) constitutionality, (2) the growing power of the executive branch, and/or (3) legislators’ ability to make a lot of noise about (1) and (2) without having to actually record a vote one way or the other, then this is welcome news.

But as always, it’s tempting to let the politics on this side of the world overshadow the death and destruction on that side. Waiting for congressional authorization is good. Better still: not pursuing nebulous and unlikely goals via deadly, expensive missiles that are all too concrete.

Last year, Steven Cook called for intervention in Syria, arguing that the situation was not as different from Libya as anti-interventionists insisted. Now he’s changed his mind: the situation is Syria has deteriorated so much that intervention “would advance Syria’s dissolution.”

But even if the comparison to Libya still holds, the intervention in Libya was not the unqualified success we’ve often heard about, as Freddie deBoer explains. Writing from liberal interventionists’ left flank, deBoer aims to expose the limited value of their good intentions; R. R. Reno does the same from the right. They’re both correct. As this n+1 editorial—reposted from the time of the intervention in Libya—puts it, “that there has never been a successful humanitarian intervention does not mean that there cannot be one in the future. But the evidence is piling up.”

Of course, the Obama administration isn’t calling this a humanitarian intervention. We’re not considering missile strikes to protect Syrian people; we’re doing it to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and to enforce the international norm against their use. But this isn’t as simple as it sounds, either. William Polk argues that chemical weapons are everywhere and their use isn’t as rare as we think. And Richard Price is skeptical that Assad has eroded the anti-CW norm:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Swimming with Sharks: Hillary tweets to Diana Nyad

In her tweet to Diana Nyad congratulating her for her record-breaking swim between Cuba and Florida, Hillary Clinton mentions her own metaphorical swim with sharks:

Hillary Clinton@HillaryClinton 
Flying to 112 countries is a lot until you consider swimming between 2. Feels like I swim with sharks - but you actually did it! Congrats!

Checking out readers' comments to recent online news coverage, Hillary is still out there swimming with sharks - they include a few Hillary haters from the 08 primary and of course, the Right. They appear to be scared of her potential presidential run in 2016. All this uproar, and she's yet to declare herself in the race.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Where has Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel been?

Sec. of State Kerry and Sec. of Defense Hagel, May 2013 (public domain).
Secretary of State John Kerry's mug, along with his pronouncements on the case for a military strike against Syria, have been all over the media in the past several days. It's almost enough to make you forget the State Department's primary responsibilities are traditionally in diplomacy; whereas, the Defense Department, currently led by Secretary Chuck Hagel, is responsible for military matters.

In all of the excitement in the wake of Obama's threat to bomb Syria and Kerry's somber "making the case" for the president, Defense Secretary Hagel had not been heard from - not publicly, at least - until Reuters reported that along with Kerry, he will be making conference calls. You have to note that Kerry's name is listed first:

(Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and other senior U.S. national security officials will hold conference calls about Syria on Saturday afternoon with the Senate Democratic Caucus as well as the Senate Republican Conference, a White House official said.
The calls, which will be unclassified, are part of "the Administration's consultations regarding the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21," the official said.

Here's the question: has our secretary of defense been left out of the process in Obama's war-making efforts and if so, why?

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