Normalizing Cuban Relations Is Smart

Fidel CastroStephen Walt is a smart guy, but he isn’t a political scientist. So he was wrong about Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, “See what presidents can do in foreign policy when they no longer need to get elected & therefore worry less about special interest groups?” The main problem with this assertion was pointed out by Jonathan Bernstein yesterday in, Obama, Cuba and Politics. This decision didn’t come out of a vacuum. There are lots of people across the political spectrum who have been calling for exactly this change. And it isn’t just voters, “Obama’s statement and actions today echo what Hillary Clinton said about Cuba in her recent book, which was written mainly to further her presidential campaign.”

I feel the same way about Cuba and Iran. We just don’t get any benefit from not having diplomatic relations with these countries. It strikes me as more like a middle school tiff than the behavior of adults. And behaving this way doesn’t cause the leaders of these countries to think, “You know, we ought to be more like them!” It makes us look petty and is hardly a good advertisement for joining the “free world.”

The other aspect of this that always struck me as strange was that we would have nothing to do with Cuba while we did have complete diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. What was up with that? As far as I can tell, it all comes down to Kennedy and his overwrought reaction to Cuban. Garry Wills wrote an excellent article about this back in 1982, Did Kennedy Cause the Crisis? The answer is: yes; Kennedy created the mess and then dealt with his own mess fairly badly — in a way that ought to appeal to Republicans today:

Then why were the missiles there? For defensive purposes, just as the Cubans said. We refused to accept this explanation, because President Kennedy had arbitrarily defined ground-to-ground missiles as “offensive,” after saying that offensive weapons would not be tolerated. Yet we called our ground-to-ground missiles on the Soviets’ Turkish border defensive. Deterrence — the threat of overwhelming response if attacked — is a category of defense when we apply it to our own weapons; but we denied the same definition to our opponents. Which meant that we blinded ourselves to the only reason Castro accepted (with some reluctance) the Russian missiles. He wanted to force the Kennedys to stop plotting his overthrow by threatening that if worse came to worst and we were ready to crush him, he would take some of our cities down with him.

Stuff like this is shameful. But of course the country has never come to terms with it. In fact, the Cuban Missile Crisis — the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war — is one of the crowning achievements of Kennedy’s presidency, as far as most Americans are concerned. Lost in all of this is the fact that Cuba was always a small and weak country that shouldn’t have bothered the United States at all — except that as a people we are neurotically insecure.

From an electoral standpoint, I don’t see the problem with normalizing relations. There are some people who absolutely hate Cuba. But as far as I can tell, they are mostly Republican voters anyway. And, like most Republican voters, they are quickly dying off. What’s more, they are mostly just people who are angry because they lost a bunch of money and prestige under the corrupt Batista regime. Is that what our national goal should be: to get rid of the Castros and replace them with another dictator? People don’t think about it that deeply, but clearly Cuba hasn’t been an exporter of terrorism these last fifty odd years. In fact, it has been the opposite. Regardless of what you think has gone on inside Cuba, it has been the United Sates that has export terrorism to the island nation.

So it is about time that we normalize relations with Cuba. We ought to do the same with Iran. But we won’t do that. And I suspect that Stephen Walt knows very well why that is. The pro-Israel lobby in this country is far more powerful — especially with the Democratic Party — than the anti-Cuba lobby. And Israel would find it frightening if we were to treat Iran as just another nation. Even though it is.

Phillip White Is the Symptom Not the Problem

Phillip WhiteI suspect you’ve heard about San Jose police officer Phillip White’s comments regarding his commitment to protect and serve the community. He started by tweeting, “Threaten me or my family and I will use my God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you. #CopsLivesMatter.” And he followed it up with the even more charming, “By the way if anyone feels they can’t breathe or their lives matter I’ll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun.” Yet he has been known as a supposedly good cop who was profiled in the San Jose Mercury News “for his good work with local schoolchildren.” But these tweets were not just a matter of having a bad night; he has a bit of a history.

BuzzFeed documented weeks of tweets by White ridiculing and attacking protesters. It isn’t hard to know what’s going on here. As long as Officer White feels respected by everyone, he’s fine. But if he feels disrespected, he acts like a spoiled child. In other words, White is entirely typical of law enforcement officers in this country. In fact, you might say he is more generally typical of this country. I continue to marvel at my fellow Americans’ constant inferiority complex — best illustrated by the frat boys chanting “We’re number one!” after Osama bin Laden’s death.

The situation with Officer White is a cause of great concern — but not in the way that most people claim. I’m sure that what he tweeted was entirely typical of what police officers say amongst themselves all the time. He is, in other words, not a “bad apple.” He is an entirely typical example of the apples in our national law enforcement barrel. And it is so rotten that it is emitting methane, which catches fire every few days. So I have a hard time getting excited about White being fired. What is the message that it will send to the law enforcement community? We all “know” the citizenry to be a bunch of subhuman scum, but don’t say that in public!?

Breathe Easy: Don't Break the LawThis goes right along with Jason Barthel, a police officer in Indiana. He also owns a clothing business, so he started selling the charming shirt that is illustrated on the right, “Breathe Easy: Don’t Break the Law.” Barthel claims to mean no offence, “We’re here to protect the public and we want you to breathe easy knowing that the police are here to be with you and for you and protect you.” Of course, that’s not what the shirt says. To be very clear: the shirt says, “Eric Garner wouldn’t be dead if he hadn’t sold un-taxed cigarettes in the past.”

The sad thing is that I’m sure Barthel actually thinks that his shirts represent a positive message. And certainly there has been no reporting of him getting pressure to stop making money (I assume) off the death of Garner. And that, my friends, is the problem with policing in this nation. It is too insular. Officers see the world as being “us” against “them.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had bad experiences with the police. Maybe it is my anti-authoritarian personality. But it still doesn’t make much sense, because I have gone out of my way to get along with the police. They want unearned respect, I give them it. They want unwarranted submissiveness, no problem. They want unconstitutional cooperation, it’s theirs. Yet in 80% of the cases, they still act like complete jerks. It’s because being in the police is more than a job — it’s a lifestyle. And its a lifestyle that provides them with undue power. And the only thing that power craves is more power. So there is never enough respect, never enough submissiveness, never enough cooperation.

So let’s not get too lost in outrage over Phillip White. He’s just a symptom of a far deeper and more pernicious problem — the angry side of Jason Barthel and his “inoffensive” shirts. I suspect we will go on doing as little as possible to address that problem. And people will continue to wrongly die at the hands of the police. And individual officers will ignorantly go around claiming that they are just misunderstood. And also threatening to murder us at the movie theater.

Bush 2016: the Terri Schiavo Choice!

Jeb BushNow that Jeb Bush has jumped in the race to decide if he is going to jump in the race, do I have to take him seriously? I really don’t want to. It isn’t that I think he is especially worse than other Republicans. But if he actually became president, that would be the third Bush. As it is, I’m not that keen on Hillary Clinton just because she would be the second Clinton. But maybe I’m all wrong.

Maybe having a second Clinton or a third Bush would be perfect. After all, what is my problem with saying to the world, “We are a hereditary aristocracy!”? It is only that I don’t think that is what America should be. But I know full well that that is exactly what America is. There is less economic mobility in the United States than there is in most other advanced countries. So why try to hide it? America is not the land of opportunity: Bush 1988! Bush 1992! Bush 2000! Bush 2004! Bush 2016! With the missing dates there, it doesn’t sound so much like 18th century England as 21st century Russia: Putin, Putin, not Putin, Putin. The conservatives should love it!

But we should remember what a great guy Jeb Bush is. (That’s sarcasm, folks!) His career as a businessman is pretty much the same as his brother’s: his father is a well-connected ex-president and people want to suck up to him by handing money to the son. As much as my own life may suck, at least it is my own and not something gifted to me based upon my dad’s accomplishments. As for governor, well, Bush did for Florida what his brother did for the country: he moved money out of the public sector and gave it to his cronies. But that’s what we expect from a Republican, right?

In what is supposed to be a very positive look back on Bush’s eight years as governor in The Washington Post, Linda Kleindienst wrote:

Bush’s back-to-back terms were marred by frequent ethics scandals, official bungling and the inability of the government he downsized to meet growing demands for state services, including education and aid for the infirm and the elderly…

He championed tax cuts that chiefly benefited business and the wealthy, trimmed the state’s payroll, stripped job protection from thousands of mid-level civil servants, gained more power over the judiciary, exploited his Washington connections to prevent the closing of military bases and launched the nation’s first statewide private-school voucher program…

“He led the enactment of tax cuts that will drain the state of needed revenue for health care and children and senior citizens — and we already rank at the bottom of the nation in those services,” said Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for migrant workers and the poor…

Though he proclaimed himself the “education governor,” Bush’s legacy in this field was mixed at best… Florida’s high school dropout rate and per-pupil spending continued to rank among the nation’s worst. While Bush sought spending increases for public schools, they barely offset steadily growing demands on school districts, including the soaring cost of health and property insurance…

Perhaps Bush’s most grievous blunder came with the enactment of One Florida, a plan to end affirmative-action preferences for minorities in university admissions and state contracting. It sparked a sit-in by two black legislators in the governor’s executive suite — and hundreds of black college students in the hallway outside his office — and the largest ever protest-march, led by the Rev Jesse L Jackson, on the state Capitol in 2000.

One Florida was a prime example of Bush’s shoot-first, take-no-advice method of governing. It tarnished his image in the black community and alienated voters…

But that really is nothing, in my mind, compared to his behavior regarding Terri Schiavo. She was the woman in a vegetative state who Bush used all his power to make political hay out of. You probably remember that after years of making its way through the courts, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed. But Bush got the legislature to pass a special law allowing Bush to have the feeding tube put back in. The law was found to be unconstitutional. After a few more twists and turns, Schiavo was allowed to die. At the autopsy, doctors found just what the fMRI had shown: that literally half of her brain was gone.

I found out something new today in an Think Progress article, Terri Schiavo’s Husband Speaks Out On Jeb Bush’s Presidential Bid. After the whole sad affair was over, Bush used his position as governor to investigate Terri’s husband Michael to see if the state couldn’t charge him for something because maybe he didn’t call 9-1-1 fast enough when she had her initial heart attack:

The state’s attorney found no evidence against him and closed the case. “The propriety of using your office to hunt and harass people, as the governor did to Mr Schiavo after his wife’s death, I think raises significant questions about his judgment and his character,” [Michael Schiavo’s attorney at the time George] Felos said.

It raises more than questions. It ought to be disqualifying. Of course it isn’t. The only thing that disqualifies a person from being president is a lack of money. And that’s why we stand a very good chance of having another Clinton or yet another Bush in the White House. America: the land of the aristocrats, and the home of the serfs.

The Torture Prosecutions That Couldn’t

Charles PierceIt is axiomatic, or it certainly ought to be, that people who torture are fundamentally cowards, and that the people who order torture are more cowardly still since they subcontract their crimes to people they consider little more than hired hands, and who they will gladly serve up to maintain the fiction of the few bad apples that spoil the whole coffin-sized box. We are seeing this in real time now. Cheney makes sure we know Bush knew. Yoo says the CIA people went too far beyond the careful legal infrastructure he’d built. And this brings us, sadly, to the moral calamity at the heart of the Obama Administration, the final, tragic consequence of Looking Forward, Not Back. And the deepest tragedy about it is that it was inevitable.

It is clear from what we’ve heard from these creatures over the last week that, if they’d ever been tried for the crimes against humanity they committed, in any courtroom in the world, they’d have turned on each other in a New York minute. You wouldn’t have to waterboard Cheney to get him to give you Bush. He’d do it for a steak. You wouldn’t have to blow pasta up John Yoo’s hindquarters to get him to roll on the people who relied on his instructions to carry out their orders. I’m willing to bet a considerable bag of nickels that there are a few dozen anonymous CIA operatives who are feeling very hung out to dry at the moment, and who would be willing, at the price of a reduction of their sentences, to sing a lovely aria. This might have been the easiest prosecution in the history of the world.

Alas, as we also have learned from the polling over the past week, it would not have been an easy prosecution to sell to a public that is more willing to trust a television show than it is to trust the Geneva Conventions… That is what made the moral calamity of the Obama Administration inevitable. The president is not an amoral man. Neither is he stupid. He knew full well, despite all his glowing rhetoric about the fundamental decency of the American people, that, for its own scurvy purposes, the previous administration unleashed the darkest collective human impulses that the country possesses, that the previous administration made good use of fear and ignorance, and the anger that is their monstrous stepchild, and that it profited politically and personally for having done so. He also knew that, somewhere, deep in the heart that he is sure the United State till possesses, a kind of national shame was building up to a level pretty close to critical mass and that, if it detonated in an uncontrolled explosion, the power of it could be terribly misused.

So the moral calamity of the Obama Administration is one that was forced upon it by the nature of the transformation of the country that was wrought in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, a transformation that never was going to be temporary, since an endless war requires a permanently transformed country. Reading the polls today makes a mockery of the notion that there ever has been a president elected to office who would have had the raw political courage to hand these gutless bastards over to the Hague to be tried for war crimes, or to prosecute them ourselves for criminal conspiracy… And that political establishment has resisted the court because it knows full well that the court has no constituency in the United States, an exceptional country that does not torture or commit war crimes, an exception country that has guaranteed that a moral calamity will be at the heart of every presidency for the next 100 years, because there is no constituency for law that is stronger than the constituency for vengeance.

—Charlie Pierce
The Moral Calamity of The Obama Administration

Steve Biko

[After everything that has gone on with the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford III — along with the release of the torture report — I’ve decided to reprint a slightly edited article I wrote three months ago on the anniversary of Steve Biko’s death. It goes along with South African comedian Trevor Noah, and his appearance on The Daily Show about how we’ve managed to create an apartheid state without having to enact explicitly racist laws. We do it all with heavy doses of implicit racism. —FM]

Steve BikoOn this day in 1946, the great political activist Steve Biko was born. He worked against the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the late 1960s, he helped to form South African Students’ Organization and was its first president. By 1972, his political activities were so successful that he was thrown out of college. And the following year he was “banned” by the South African government. That meant he was forbidden from speaking to more than one person at a time. And he was confined to his township. And he could not write for or speak to the media.

Let us take a step back from this. In the United States at this time and for another decade and a half, conservatives in the United States spoke of apartheid South Africa as though it were the shining light of democracy in Africa. According to these conservatives, the rulers of South Africa were the modern incarnations of the Founding Fathers. But we all know what was really going on. The rules were white, so it didn’t matter what they did. And the oppressed were black, so it didn’t matter what was done to them.

Despite these restrictions, Biko continued to organize. The Soweto Uprising was highly successful, and was put down by the regime with its characteristic restraint by setting dogs on the school children and then shooting them. At least a couple hundred where killed and over a thousand wounded. After this, the regime decided that they really needed to go after Steve Biko, even though he was not directly involved.

On 18 August 1977, Biko was arrested at a check point under a law that ought to sound familiar to Americans who have been paying any attention to events in America over the last several decades, Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967. He was tortured for 22 hours. This resulted in Biko slipping into a coma. Then he was chained to a window grill for a day. Just short of four weeks later, he was transported 700 miles to a prison that had hospital facilities. He died the next day — 12 September 1977. Wikipedia provides the following tragic but entirely typical conclusion, “The police claimed his death was the result of an extended hunger strike, but an autopsy revealed multiple bruises and abrasions and that he ultimately succumbed to a brain hemorrhage from the massive injuries to the head…” You know: the police never do anything wrong. And they can never be held accountable regardless, “After a 15-day inquest in 1978, a magistrate judge found there was not enough evidence to charge the officers with murder because there were no eyewitnesses.”

The one good thing about Biko’s death was that it really did publicize just how awful the apartheid system was. Over 10,000 people came to Biko’s funeral. So he was a martyr to the cause that he had worked his whole adult life for. So I can see the beauty in his life and ultimate sacrifice. But it mostly just fills me with rage.

Nevertheless: happy birthday Steve Biko!


Here is Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko”: