April 23, 2017

Trump has no credibility to pledge "Never again"

It has been reported that President Trump will address Tuesday's "Yom Hashoah" Holocaust commemoration at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. In addition to Holocaust exhibits and documentation, the Museum very consciously houses the Committee on Conscience and the Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

Today, addressing the World Jewish Congress via video, he pledged, "We must stamp out prejudice and anti-Semitism everywhere it is found." And finally, months after his White House denied the need to mention Jews in connection with the Holocaust, he did mention Hitler's six million Jewish targeted victims. But his rhetoric is very thin on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and ignores his administration's consistent refusal to act in support of contemporary victims of mass killings and of racial and religious persecution, even while he and his aides routinely appeal to Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia here in the United States.

Unless he announces that he's abandoning the border wall, dropping the arbitrary ban on refugees and certain Muslim states, and firing the "Alt-Right" white supremacists and the second-generation card-carrying Nazi working inside his own West Wing, anything he says there can be nothing more than a desecration and betrayal of the memory and lessons of the Holocaust. Singling out Jews for special recognition and protection, while actively sowing fear and hostility toward so many other minorities, does us no favors.

April 8, 2017

Trump attacks Syria - Context & consequences

I was writing up a new post with some thoughts about this past week's U.S. retaliation against Syrian forces, and decided to record it as a podcast for The Bottom Line. Please listen to the nine minutes and let me know what you think!

April 5, 2017

What Trump could do NOW on Syria

Following this week's massacre of civilians by Syrian government forces, using specialized chemical weapons, a friend asked me what President Trump should do at this stage. To recall, President Obama averted military intervention by securing Syrian President Assad's agreement to remove all chemical weapons. While Obama should never have thrown down a red line over Syria's potential use of chemical weapons, it could have been catastrophic for the region and the United States had he backed that up when Assad indeed deployed such weapons. 

To be sure, with Russia and Iran's active support Assad has been committing mass murder and devastation against his own citizens. But until last week's indication by Trump's Secretary of State that the UnitedStates is ready for Assad to remain in office, Assad had avoided using more than off-brand chemicals such as dropping barrels of chlorine.

A friend has challenged me to suggest what Trump should do at this point, beyond empty statements. 

So here are a few ideas:

1. A statement condemning would be a good start. 

2. Countermanding Tillerson's explicit approval of Assad's legitimacy would be even better. 

3. Demand that the Russians cooperate in holding Assad accountable and removing these new stockpiles (which Russia may have itself supplied. 

4. Get ahead of the courts and formally rescind the U.S. ban on refugees from Syria who have already been exhaustively vetted -- and call on European nations to redouble their own programs.

Obama came in on the heels of George W. Bush's obliteration of Saddam's orderly dictatorship, which unleashed the cynical and destructive forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. That same obliteration freed Iran to pursue its goals in Syria largely unchecked. Obama made some missteps, but he did better than average with what he'd been dealt -- and at least he tried. 

Trump may still have a narrow opportunity to minimize the damage from the current situation, but by accepting Russia's dominance and legitimizing Assad, he's already taken a bad situation and made it so much worse.

March 8, 2017

Washington, the world's newest Third World capital

Watching the spectacle of TV legend Andrea Mitchell being ignored and ushered out of the seventh-floor parlor of the State Department as she tried to ask questions of our notoriously reclusive Secretary of State and his visiting counterpart, I was reminded of a visit to the President of Azerbaijan nearly 20 years ago.

Our audience with the late Haidar Aiyev was at the Presidential Palace in Baku, overlooking the
As a non-journalist, I was welcome to remain.
sparkling Caspian Sea. To enter the chamber, we had to navigate two dozen reporters, photographers, and TV cameras, recording the whole scene.


We were seated at one long table across from the President's table, with flowers in between. As the junior member of our delegation, I was a few places over from center, next to the U.S. Embassy's political officer. The press were strung out behind us and around the edge of the tables.

Aliyev and our delegation chair exchanged brief greetings and pleasantries. Then, before we got down to the real business, President Aliyev announced, "I would now like thank the members of the press."

As these journalists all raced for the exit, I leaned over and whispered to my new Embassy pal, "In other words, last one out gets arrested." He took umbrage, responding, "The President was merely expressing appreciation!" By the way, such a response can be one symptom of "client-itis", when a foreign service officer identifies excessively with the interests and norms of his or her host country.

Back to the present... This week, for the first time since the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. State Department finally resumed daily press briefings. But the irony of an American Secretary of State whose authoritarian counterparts -- including Russia's foreign minister -- are more accessible to the press than he is boggles the mind.

All those years ago, with the Cold War memories still fresh in my mind and still visible on the faces of the leaders and diplomats across the former Soviet Union, their degree of state control over information was understandable. That comparable optics and limitations are now imposed in Washington, DC, is both shameful and sobering.

February 24, 2017

Hope for a Friday

For my friends -- liberals and conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, independents -- who reject so much of what Trump stands for:

We are living as though in the World to Come, a fogged-in realm where all our former ideological and political differences now seem so trite, where we share common cause, united in nostalgia for a civilized and aspirational existence that we've left behind. Stripped to our bones, this commonality has the potential to restore and reclaim, to rebuild, to revive our society with new life, while never forgetting how precious and vulnerable are truth, justice, compassion, curiosity, meaning.

February 21, 2017

Trump reaffirms fight against anti-Semitism

I was pleased to see President Trump explicitly condemn anti-Semitism this morning. Hopefully, my earlier post will be proven wrong over the duration of the President's White House tenure.

Hopefully, this won't be the end of the story: 
  • Ideally, he will follow it with actions, as his predecessors did.  
  • Condemning, monitoring and combating anti-Semitism should reopen the door to addressing other forms of xenophobia, including Islamophobia, as it did previously in Europe and the United States.
  • The Prime Minister of Israel might come to accept that -- while his top priority is to advance Israel's national interests -- this this doesn't obligate him to excuse negative trends affecting Diaspora Jewry, just to please his hosts.
The President was responding to a reporter's question while out and about, and -- despite his claim that he condemns anti-Semitism at every opportunity -- this appears to be his first time since being elected President. We'll have to see if the Administration will take real initiative and convene consultations, coordinate response by law enforcement, and promote respect for minority rights across the country and around the world. 

This is a cause in which the President clearly deserves our full support and encouragement.

February 20, 2017

Addressing 'anti-Semitism' just ain't gonna be a Trump priority

So that's it??? It looks like our new President just won't be explicitly acknowledging any kind of hatred targeting Jews, whether past or present. As with the prospect of releasing his tax returns, establishing a real blind trust or finally assuming a responsible, Presidential demeanor, calling anti-Semitism by its name probably won't be something he does during his tenure. If he were going to do so, last week's visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- the self-proclaimed "representative of the entire Jewish people" -- would have been the time...not that Netanyahu even seemed to care.

The White House belatedly issued a statement today condemning unspecified "actions", which in this case involved repeated bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country. No mention of Jews or anti-Semitism. Likewise, our Tweeter-in-Chief has yet to even mention last month's mosque massacre in Quebec, even with the recent visit by Canada's Prime Minister. 

On a base political level, it's clear President Trump attracts his strongest support from the so-called "Alt-Right", what we used to call the white supremacist movement. His chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon, used to run Breitbart, which he proudly labeled "the platform for the Alt-Right." 

Trump's core demographic hates Jews, Muslims and Latinos, as well as the Catholic Church -- especially under Pope Francis. Trump shares their animosity toward the latter groups. He happens to love Jews, especially his daughter and her family, and he seems to genuinely love Israel. But he also clearly understands the political convenience of not condemning his most fanatical followers. By leaving out mention of Jews, even from his official statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day, that should be sufficient to appease those supporters -- it's not like they're going to defect to the Party of Obama. 

Aside from legitimizing -- by default -- acts of hate within the United States, Trump's silence also undercuts the global fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of hate and xenophobia. The United States has been the locomotive for this cause and still sets the tone for international discourse. And on a practical level, we won't have credibility admonishing other governments to do better. Hopefully, the work we have accomplished with key governments and multilateral institutions during the past 25 years has become part of the legal and political cultures, and of law enforcement protocols... but this won't be pretty.