Israel and Iran are on a collision course in Syria – and the U.S. and Russia don’t care

Anshel Pfeffer writes:

The escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran in the skies over Syria in the past 24 hours has brought their secret war of the last two years well and truly into the open.

On Sunday, Israel carried out a rare daylight series of airstrikes in the Damascus area, followed by an Iranian attempt to fire a mid-range missile toward northern Israel. Overnight Monday, at 1 A.M., Israel not only launched a second, much wider series of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, but for the first time announced in real time that they were taking place.

Israel and Iran are now engaged in direct and open conflict in Syria – which is perhaps not so surprising, considering how the events of the last eight years since Syria was plunged into civil war have led to this moment.

What is remarkable is how this latest development is happening without either of the world powers – the United States and Russia – trying to exert any significant influence on the outcome.

In recent years, geopolitical analysts have talked about the world and the Middle East transitioning from an international system where the United States was the only superpower to a more “multipolar” balance. What is happening in Syria now is a nonpolar situation. Neither side, Israel or Iran, seems to want to go all the way to all-out war, but without any restraining hand that could well happen.

Russia pretends to have plans for Syria’s future, but doesn’t seem to be doing much to implement them. The United States, meanwhile, doesn’t even pretend. It is now well into its second White House administration that quite clearly does not consider Syria and the surrounding region important enough for any meaningful U.S. intervention. [Continue reading…]

‘If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?’

The Washington Post reports:

During the summer of 2017, when temperatures reached triple digits in Arizona, four women drove to a vast desert wilderness along the southwestern border with Mexico. They brought water jugs and canned food — items they later said they were leaving for dehydrated migrants crossing the unfriendly terrain to get to the United States.

The women were later charged with misdemeanor crimes. Prosecutors said they violated federal law by entering Cabeza Prieta, a protected 860,000-acre refuge, without a permit and leaving water and food there. A judge convicted them on Friday in the latest example of growing tension between aid workers and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Aid workers say their humanitarian efforts, motivated by a deep sense of right and wrong, have been criminalized during the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal border crossings. Federal officials say they were simply enforcing the law.

The four women, all volunteers for the Arizona-based aid group No More Deaths, were convicted after a three-day bench trial at a federal court in Tucson. They could face up to six months in federal prison.

Their trial coincided with a partial government shutdown that has now entered its 30th day, the longest in the country’s history. Negotiations have stalled as President Trump stands firm on his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, citing a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border.

In his verdict, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco said the women’s actions violated “the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature.” Velasco also said the women committed the crimes under the false belief that they would not be prosecuted and instead would simply be banned or fined.

Catherine Gaffney, a volunteer for No More Deaths, said the guilty verdict challenges all “people of conscience throughout the country.”

“If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?” she said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

Waiting for a shutdown to end in disaster

McKay Coppins writes:

As the longest government shutdown in American history lurches toward its fifth week, a grim but growing consensus has begun to emerge on Capitol Hill: There may be no way out of this mess until something disastrous happens.

This is, of course, not a sentiment lawmakers are eager to share on the record. But in interviews this week with congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle (whom I granted anonymity in exchange for candor), I heard the same morbid idea expressed again and again.

The basic theory—explained to me between weary sighs and defeated shrugs—goes like this: Washington is at an impasse that looks increasingly unbreakable. President Donald Trump is dug in; so is Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Democrats have public opinion on their side, but the president is focused on his conservative base. For a deal to shake loose in this environment, it may require a failure of government so dramatic, so shocking, as to galvanize public outrage and force the two parties back to the negotiating table.

In these interviews, I heard an array of macabre hypotheticals—from airplane crashes to food-safety scares, TSA strikes to terrorist incidents. But the one theme that ran through every conversation was a sense that the current political dynamics won’t change until voters get a lot angrier. [Continue reading…]

Protecting the work of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, isn’t the Attorney General’s only job

Jeffrey Toobin writes:

When William Barr testified last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee as President Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, he gave the impression that he would be an aberrational figure in the Administration. Unlike many members of the President’s Cabinet, Barr is experienced, knowledgeable, and clearly qualified, in any formal sense, for the job, which he has held before, under President George H. W. Bush. In addition, he has a reputation for integrity and straight dealing. Most of the questions at his confirmation hearing concerned the work of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, whom Barr will supervise if he is confirmed. He made a convincing case that he would allow Mueller to complete his investigation of President Trump. He was less definitive about how much of Mueller’s report he would release, but he seemed receptive to the sentiment, expressed by Democrats and even by some Republicans, that the public has a right to know what Mueller has learned.

Based on the hearing, one might think that supervision of the special counsel is the Attorney General’s main responsibility. But that’s far from true, and it’s regarding the other work of the Justice Department, particularly its central mission of protecting the civil rights of all Americans, that the prospect of Barr’s service appears dismaying. By and large, he seemed prepared to sustain the work of his predecessors in the Administration: the belligerently right-wing Jeff Sessions and the comically unqualified Matthew Whitaker, the acting Attorney General.

Consider voting rights. In the past decade, Republicans have changed and applied electoral laws to make it harder for Democrats, especially people of color, to vote. The Supreme Court abetted these practices with its decision, in 2013, in the Shelby County case, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. The midterm elections brought home the consequences. In states around the country—especially Florida and Georgia, where African-Americans ran competitive statewide campaigns—voter suppression, in various forms, demeaned the process and may have affected the outcome.

And what has the Trump Justice Department done about these outrages? It’s encouraged them, in part by withdrawing legal challenges to discriminatory laws which were filed during the Obama Administration. (In Ohio, the department switched sides in a suit that had been brought to halt a purge of registered voters.) Last week, Barr said that he would enforce the Voting Rights Act, but he did not seem perturbed by the problem of voter suppression. He allowed that low voter turnout was likely the result of public disengagement, adding that “turnout shouldn’t be artificially driven up.” Actually, turnout by eligible citizens should be driven up, whether artificially or otherwise.

Indeed, the Trump Justice Department has had something of an obsession with making sure that minorities don’t count. [Continue reading…]

What boys are learning from men

Melinda Wenner Moyer writes:

No one who saw the new Gillette ad “The Best Men Can Be” thought it would be universally embraced. It establishes the state of masculinity today with various scenes of men acting sexist, boys physically and mentally terrorizing each other, and dads accepting a “Boys will be boys” mentality, before dramatically pivoting.

The wide range of reactions was, of course, the point: to create a conversation starter. To rile people and get them talking about Gillette. To increase brand recognition amid Gillette’s declining market share and, ultimately, make Procter & Gamble more money. Much of the criticism of the ad has revolved around the company’s motives.

Yet P&G can have financial incentives and still make an ad worth lauding. These two things are not mutually exclusive. And this ad is a step in the right direction, because the more we collectively hear the message that sexual harassment is unacceptable, that bullying is wrong, and that helping victims is noble, the more this message will shape our—and our children’s—everyday choices. We need to get messages like this from our leaders, teachers, parents—and from television shows, movies, books, songs, and advertisements. Cultural shifts happen when every aspect of culture embraces and normalizes a change.

This argument, of course, rests on the assumption that we need this message at all. Many of the ad’s critics think we don’t. But let me tell you: We do. The centerpiece of this ad isn’t grown men; it’s kids. The ad climaxes with footage of sweet-faced lads and the lesson “The boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.” Gillette’s argument is that we need to be careful with the choices we make as adults because children learn decency and morality from us. As Slate’s science-based parenting columnist for the past six years—a job that has given me the opportunity to interview dozens of psychologists, social scientists, and pediatricians about the factors that shape child behavior and character—I agree passionately with this idea. Kids learn by watching what we do, not by listening to what we say, and boys in particular absorb a lot from their fathers as well as from male public figures. They watch prominent men in their lives stick up, or not, for victims of bullying or sexual harassment. They watch how men treat their girlfriends and wives and interact with women in public. Many boys watched one man, the president of the United States, publicly mock a woman who testified to Congress that she was a victim of sexual assault. Many also heard him brag about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

And right now, kids are learning bad things from what they see and hear. [Continue reading…]

 

The Covington Catholic “Colonel Crazies” compilation video below was originally included on the school’s official YouTube channel but has since been removed, presumably because it is cause of embarrassment and reveals too much about the all-boys school’s toxic culture:

 

The plot against George Soros

Hannes Grassegger writes:

The glass tower that houses George Soros’s office in Manhattan is overflowing with numbers on screens, tracking and predicting the directions of markets around the world. But there’s one that’s particularly hard to figure out — a basic orange chart on a screen analyzing sentiment on social media.

The data, updated regularly since 2017, projects the reactions on the internet to the name George Soros. He gets tens of thousands of mentions per week — almost always negative, some of it obviously driven by networks of bots. Soros is pure evil. A drug smuggler. Profiteer. Extremist. Conspiracist. Nazi. Jew. It’s a display of pure hate.

The demonization of Soros is one of the defining features of contemporary global politics, and it is, with a couple of exceptions, a pack of lies. Soros is indeed Jewish. He was an aggressive currency trader. He has backed Democrats in the US and Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” in the former communist bloc. But the many wild and proliferating theories, which include the suggestion that he helped bring down the Soviet Union in order to clear a path to Europe for Africans and Arabs, are so crazy as to be laughable — if they weren’t so virulent.

Soros and his aides have spent long hours wondering: Where did this all come from?

Only a handful of people know the answer.

On a sunny morning last summer, one of them could be found standing in front of the huge buffet in the Westin Grand Hotel in Berlin. George Birnbaum is built like a marathon runner — tall and slender, his head and face shaved clean. Elegant horn-rimmed glasses frame his piercing blue eyes.

Birnbaum — a political consultant who has worked in the US, Israel, Hungary, and across the Balkans — had agreed to talk for the first time about his role in the creation of the Soros bogeyman, which ended up unleashing a global wave of anti-Semitic attacks on the billionaire investor. But he also wanted to defend his work, and that of his former mentor and friend, Arthur Finkelstein.

George Eli Birnbaum was born in 1970 in Los Angeles, where his family moved after fleeing Nazi Germany. His grandfather was shot by the Nazis in front of his son, Birnbaum’s father, who later survived Auschwitz. Anti-Semitism followed the family as they moved to Atlanta, where Birnbaum grew up, and where the Jewish school he attended was often defaced with anti-Semitic slurs. It left a mark.

In an era when many American Jews drifted away from their specific identity, Birnbaum wasn’t allowed to forget it. Every weekend his father handed him the Jerusalem Post.

“First you learn what’s going on with the Jewish people in the world, then you can worry about the rest of the world,” Birnbaum remembered his father saying. He grew up believing that only a strong nation, the state of Israel, could protect the Jews from a second Holocaust.

All of which makes it bizarre that Birnbaum and Finkelstein’s ideas spawned a new wave of anti-Semitism, and that they did so in the service of an authoritarian leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, reviled around the world for his far-right views. The two men took all the arguments against Soros, from East and West, from left and right, and fused them together. Two American Jews, one a towering figure in US politics, helped create a monster. [Continue reading…]

Time to break the silence on Palestine

Michelle Alexander writes:

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in active combat in Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been killed, including some 10,000 American troops. The political establishment — from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American service members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line.

Many of King’s strongest allies urged him to remain silent about the war or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They knew that if he told the whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he would be falsely labeled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash, alienate supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights movement.

King rejected all the well-meaning advice and said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” and added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.

I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. [Continue reading…]

Mueller’s leak-proof investigation

On Friday, Peter Carr, spokesman for the Mueller investigation, released a brief statement challenging the accuracy of “specific statements” in BuzzFeed‘s blockbuster 1500-word report on Donald Trump instructing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.

The Washington Post then reported:

Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.

To go from “specific statements” “are not accurate,” to “the story as almost entirely incorrect,” is a wild leap.

Earlier, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley repeatedly sidestepped issuing a categorical denial of the central claim made in the BuzzFeed report.

Carr’s statement seems to have had less to do with suggesting the BuzzFeed report was baseless than in underlining that the report’s sources were not members of Mueller’s highly disciplined team that only releases information in the form of court documents.

Marcy Wheeler writes:

I don’t doubt that Mueller hates Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier for the way they got the financial transfer part of this story when no one else did, and more of the Moscow Tower deal story than others (which seems to be forgotten in the squawking about Buzzfeed’s loneliness on this latest story).

But I suspect Carr took this step, even more, as a message to Southern District of New York and any other Agents working tangents of this case. Because of the way Mueller is spinning off parts of this case, he has less control over some aspects of it, like Cohen’s plea. And in this specific case (again, presuming I’m right about the SDNY sourcing), Buzzfeed’s sources just jeopardized Mueller’s hard-earned reputation, built over 20 months, for not leaking. By emphasizing in his statement what happened in “the special counsel’s office,” “testimony obtained by this office,” Carr strongly suggests that the people who served as sources had nothing to do with the office.

The evidence that Donald Trump never expected or wanted to become president

Frank Bruni writes:

I’m struck in particular by how the indisputable parts of the BuzzFeed article underscore what many Trump observers have long believed, an insight that explains so much about his eccentric campaign and unethical governance: He never really expected to be president. More than that, he never really hoped to be.

That’s why he didn’t put business matters on hold or disentangle himself from glaring conflicts of interest. That’s why he refused to yoke himself to the sorts of rules that his predecessors had endeavored to follow.

That’s why he indulged in behavior that would come back to haunt him in the White House: He never planned on moving there. He wasn’t supposed to come under this kind of glare or have to lie this much (though lying comes easily to him). If victory had really been the point, he might not have left himself so exposed. [Continue reading…]

Why Trump’s directing Cohen, others to lie would be far worse than Watergate


Ryan Goodman writes:

If the President of the United States directed his personal attorney and fixer to help sabotage the Russia investigation by lying to Congress, there is no turning back for the nation. Given the independent corroborating evidence that special counsel Robert Mueller reportedly has to show that’s what the president did, things are only going to get worse for the White House from here.

Cohen’s lying to Congress (and to the Special Counsel’s Office) was not only about covering up a secret deal with the Kremlin during the heart of the campaign, a deal that potentially even included an illegal payoff for Putin personally. It was also a direct hit on the Russia investigation itself. The Special Counsel told the court that Cohen’s lies to both Congress and the Special Counsel were “intended to limit ongoing investigations into Russian interference in a U.S. presidential election, and the question of any links or coordination between a campaign and a foreign government.”

What makes the Cohen lies even worse—and yes, far worse than Watergate—is that it exposed any U.S. officials who were involved in orchestrating his false testimony to blackmail by Russia. As Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney and professor at the University of Michigan Law School, wrote at Just Security, “in the context of counterintelligence investigations, lies can also compromise national security….A foreign adversary like Russia can use lies as leverage over government officials to coerce them into complying with its demands or else face exposure of the lies.” As former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified in the context of Flynn’s lying about Russian contacts, “To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.” If Trump suborned false statements, the President would have exposed not only himself to Kremlin blackmail, but also other members of his team who, according to court documents and reporting, helped orchestrate his personal lawyer’s congressional testimony.

Take a step back and you can see how the national security dimensions of “RussiaGate” are what distinguish the case and, in many respects, makes it far worse than the case for Nixon’s or Clinton’s impeachment.

It is also, as with Nixon’s bad acts, an easy case on the law when it comes to a president’s suborning false statements and obstruction of justice. Even William Barr, the man nominated for attorney general with extreme views of presidential power, has written and testified (see exchanges with Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Amy Klobuchar) that suborning perjury or inducing a witness to change their testimony is a criminal act for which no presidential power protects it. And in an op-ed in 2017 titled, “No One Is Above the Law,” staunch Trump defender, Alan Dershowitz wrote, “If a president’s actions, on the other hand, are unlawful—as President Nixon’s clearly were when he told subordinates to lie to the FBI and pay hush money—good intentions … would not be a defense. For purposes of the criminal law, presidents must be judged by the lawfulness or unlawfulness of their acts.” [Continue reading…]