Obama’s Mixed Record on School Integration

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 31, 2015.
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As Congress debates competing revisions of the No Child Left Behind Act over the next several weeks, lawmakers are unlikely to spend much time looking at the growing problem of segregated schools. Despite strong academic and civic benefits associated with integrated schooling, and a unanimous Supreme Court decision which ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”—American public schools have resegregated quickly by race and class over the past two-and-a-half decades.

Many advocates had hoped to see the Obama administration take steps to address rising school segregation, but so far its record has not been great. While the Department of Education has paid lip service to the need to promote integrated schools, and has included modest diversity incentives within a handful of federal grants, it refused to use larger education initiatives like Race to the Top to encourage states and districts to prioritize school diversity. In some cases, the department actually pushed policies that made segregation worse.

The Obama administration came to power at an interesting time for the integration movement. With the help of Reagan-appointed judges and justices, court decisions in the 1990s absolved many local districts from their legal obligations to desegregate schools. Between 1988 and 2006, the number of black students attending majority-white schools dropped by 16 percentage points. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of schools where at least 75 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-meals—a proxy for poverty—jumped from 12 percent to 17 percent.

But many districts were also interested in racial and economic diversity, even if they weren’t legally required to promote it. And so various voluntary integration experiments began cropping up around the country. These new efforts seemed promising but quickly faced legal challenge. In a pivotal 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the Supreme Court rejected voluntarily desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, on the basis that their particular student assignment strategies relied too explicitly on race. But the Court did clarify that, under certain conditions, districts can use race-conscious measures to promote diversity. Justice Kennedy even endorsed specific strategies to do so, including magnet schools and interdistrict plans.

The years immediately following the Parents Involved decision sparked confusion, largely thanks to the Bush administration. While the majority of Supreme Court justices said districts could consider race in school assignments, the Bush administration posted a federal guidance that suggested only race-neutral means of pursuing integration would be legal.

In 2009, shortly after President Obama took office, a group of educators, policy advocates, and civil rights leaders came together under the banner of the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) to try and push the new administration to take action.

“Our very first goal was to get the Department of Education to take down the guidance from the Bush administration, which told schools they could not promote racial and economic diversity,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and NCSD coalition member. Their efforts were ultimately successful. By December 2011, the department posted a new guidance, which affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision and listed various ways school districts could pursue voluntary integration.

Other NCSD efforts met less success. One of their primary objectives has been to get the Obama administration to prioritize school integration within their competitive federal grant programs. While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said that he supports school diversity and wants to reduce racial isolation, his department has not, for the most part, translated such support into its competitive programs.

Despite NCSD’s urging, the department declined to use its largest grant, the $4 billion Race to the Top initiative, to promote racial diversity. Duncan argued that including incentives for voluntary integration would have been too difficult to get through Congress. He also said that when it comes to successful integration efforts, we can’t “force these kinds of things.”

In 2013, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute,responded strongly to Duncan’s arguments, pointing out that “no education secretary has been as deft as Arne Duncan in creating incentives—both carrots and sticks—to get states to follow his favored policies that are technically voluntary.” Duncan used incentives to get states to adopt Common Core standards, to promote after-school programs and early childhood education, and even within Race to the Top, incentives were used to encourage states to adopt teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores. But in the case of school integration, Rothstein noted, suddenly Duncan sings a different tune.

“Only in this area, apparently, does Secretary Duncan believe that progress must be entirely voluntary, unforced by carrots and sticks,” Rothstein wrote. There have been plenty of opportunities to incentivize racial integration, such as rewarding states that prohibit all-white suburbs from excluding poor people through zoning ordinances, or withholding No Child Left Behind waivers from states that allow landlords to discriminate against families using federal housing vouchers. “Adoption of such ‘voluntary’ policies could make a contribution to narrowing the academic achievement gap that is so much a focus of Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric,” Rothstein said.

Despite a frustrating first term, desegregation advocates have seen some progress in the last couple years. The Department of Education recently began to include diversity as a funding priority in several of its smaller grant programs like the preschool development grants and its charter school grants; it also announced that magnet-type integration approaches are eligible for the school improvement grants (SIG) program.

While modest, these changes have led to some important new integration experiments. At the end of 2014, New York’s education commissioner, John King, helped launch a socioeconomic integration pilot program to increase student achievement using newly available federal SIG funds. King has since moved to the Department of Education, where he now serves as Arne Duncan’s senior advisor.

Other advocates have capitalized on the Department of Education’s 2011 guidance. David Tipson, executive director of New York Appleseed, says it was an absolute game-changer for his work in New York City. “Getting that correct interpretation, with some real practical guidance for school districts, I can’t even emphasize how important that was,” Tipson said. “There was a very deliberate effort to misconstrue the 2007 [Supreme Court] decision and put fear into many school officials across the country. Everything we’ve been able to do to promote school integration has come in the wake of getting that new federal guidance in place.” New York Appleseed, along with community stakeholders, sought to design a zoning plan that would help keep a school located within a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood integrated. Officials resisted at first, but they eventually relented after advocates presented them with the federal guidance. Thus at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Brooklyn’s P.S. 133 became the first school in Bloomberg’s administration to foster a specific mix of students based on socioeconomic status and English proficiency. At the school’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city’s school chancellor said he believed their innovative admissions model could be replicated elsewhere.

While advocates of desegregation are happy to see the administration beginning to prioritize diversity within its grant programs, some feel these gestures are too little, too late.

In a letter sent to Secretary Duncan last July, NCSD noted that while the Department of Education has included preferences for diversity within some grant programs, in practice, the department has “consistently underemphasized” these incentives. Many grants still make no mention of diversity at all, and in cases where they do, officials tend to weigh other competitive priorities far more heavily, rendering the modest diversity incentives ineffective. For example, in one grant, applicants could earn an additional five points if their school was diverse, but applicants could earn twice as many bonus points if their school would serve a high-poverty student population

The only federal education initiative to significantly emphasize integration is the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP), a program first launched in 1976. However MSAP has limited impact today due to the small amount of federal funding it receives. Even though charters are far more likely than magnets to exacerbate segregation, the department gave MSAP $91.6 million in 2014, compared to the $248.2 million it gave the Charter Schools Program.

Advocates have not given up. Next month in D.C., the NCSD will be hosting a national two-day conference, bringing together scholars, educators, parents, students, and policymakers to continue, “building the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion.” John King will be speaking on a panel there about the progress they’ve made, and further challenges they face on the federal level. NCSD hopes that King’s new role at the Department of Education will motivate the government to take integration efforts more seriously. The department’s press secretary, Dorie Nolt, told The American Prospect that “we’ve taken meaningful steps, and we want to do more.”

Yet this administration has fewer than 18 months left. And the next secretary of education could quite easily end even the modest progress that NCSD has fought for. “Promoting voluntary school integration is an area where the department has a lot of leeway to act on its own, in terms of trying to encourage state and local governments to prioritize diversity,” said Tegeler. “But that also means the next department has a lot of leeway to not act.”

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 22, 2015.
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In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 4th, 2015.
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As multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help.

Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act—but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to review any negotiated nuclear deal, and if Congress were to reject the deal, then the president would be barred from lifting sanctions.

Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg View that top members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, pressured Democrats to oppose the Corker-Menendez bill, lest it complicate the already fragile negotiations with Iran. Nevertheless, some Senate Democrats signed on, because there is, as Rogin puts it, “broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the [negotiating] process.”

AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

After AIPAC’s annual conference, it is evident that the pro-Israel lobby plans to capitalize on this congressional “desire” and to escalate its fight with the White House. While the Obama administration and AIPAC both declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

For AIPAC and Netanyahu, a “good deal” would mean allowing for zero enrichment of uranium for any purposes—a non-starter for the Iranians. They also seek a “permanent” deal that locks Iran under restrictions indefinitely. But as Lara Friedman, from the pro-Israel policy organization Americans for Peace Now, has explained:

Iran is in trouble right now because it has repeatedly violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), resulting in sanctions. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are grounded in the understanding that by demonstrating compliance with all of its NPT obligations, Iran will no longer be in violation of the NPT and Iran’s tenure in the international doghouse—at least with respect to its nuclear program—can come to a close (at least so long as Iran remains in compliance). An Iran nuclear agreement—whether its provisions are in place for 10 years, or 15 years, or however many years are agreed on—would dramatically mitigate the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just like the “zero enrichment” idea, Iran would never be able to sell a “permanent” deal to its people. The six world powers leading the diplomatic efforts with Iran (Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.) understand this and are working to come up with a reasonable compromise that still ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. If AIPAC and Netanyahu are serious about pursuing a diplomatic resolution to this conflict—and avoiding war—then their adamant opposition to both of these ideas raises serious questions.

At the AIPAC conference, speakers spelled out how they could use Congress to thwart the president from passing a deal they deem “bad.” On the gigantic screens in the convention center’s large plenary hall, AIPAC instructed attendees to “insist on a congressional role” when they lobby on Capitol Hill, because “on such a critical issue to U.S. national security, Congress must assert its historic role in foreign policy and review any agreement.”

Passing the Corker-Menendez bill might be an easier sell in Congress than imposing additional sanctions, because it is easier to argue that Congress should have “a voice” in the negotiating process. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday night that he wants to fast-track the bill, which might complicate its ability to garner enough Democratic support in time. Menendez has threatened to vote against his own bill, “outraged” at McConnell’s political move.

Edward Levine, an advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to international peace and security, argues that the bill is more harmful than helpful:

Do [Senators] really want to send a message to Tehran that the President may be unable to fulfill his commitments? Do they really want to move the goalposts by adding support for terrorism to the list of reasons for reinstating sanctions? The Corker bill will endanger both the negotiations and the sanctions regime; it does not merit support.

AIPAC is also trying to bolster Congress’s role in the negotiations by minimizing the fact that there has always been significant presidential authority built into U.S. sanctions legislation. The authority comes through various mechanisms, such as “waivers,” special rules, and legislative exemptions, which allow a president to decide, often unilaterally, whether and to what degree to lift or implement sanctions. He can make these choices if he believes doing so is in the national security interest of the United States.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC’s legions of supporters pressured Congress to impose more sanctions and to reduce the executive branch’s power to lift sanctions. Let’s just hope that the Iranians do not take this as a signal that the negotiators’ commitment to ease sanctions in exchange for good behavior is feeble. Because if the negotiations fail, the war that everyone is trying to avoid is that much more likely.

We Shouldn’t Go to War Based on Gut Feeling Alone

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on September 10th, 2013.
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In an interview with NBC last night, President Obama urged the nation to watch YouTube videos from Syria showing disturbing images of dead men, women and children, as well as survivors writhing in agony on the ground. The White House says that’s the gruesome aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on August 21st , in which Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad killed well over 1,400 of his own people.

Earlier yesterday afternoon at an event at the New America Foundation, Ambassador Susan Rice echoed the sentiment. “We have the technology — on our computers and our smart phones — to see the full horrors unfold in real time,” she said. “Every adult American, every Member of Congress, should watch those videos for themselves. See that suffering. Look at the eyes of those men and women, those babies — and dare to turn away and forsake them.”

Rice said that while she “understands the public skepticism” regarding military action, particularly in the Middle East, she believes that diplomatic and political measures alone are insufficient. The U.S. does “not assess [that] limited military strikes will unleash a spiral of unintended escalating consequences,” she said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who also spoke publicly on Monday, attempted to quell fears, too, arguing that any attack launched by the U.S. would be “unbelievably small.” Hours later, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie pressed Obama on Kerry’s military description. “What does that mean?” asked Guthrie. “I mean, are we talking a pinprick? A knockout blow? A punch in the gut?” Obama replied that “the U.S. does not do pinpricks” and that even a small military attack would be sufficient to seriously degrade Assad’s capabilities and deter future threats.

In an interview that aired Monday night with Charlie Rose, Assad warned that even a small military attack could unleash a disproportionate response. Should the U.S. strike Syria, it “should expect every action” in retaliation, he said, alluding to the attacks on September 11, 2001 and that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups could stand to benefit in unpredictable ways.

As the House and Senate gear up to vote on the Syrian issue beginning tomorrow, Obama’s odds of getting approval for his proposed military engagement are slim, particularly as alternatives to direct military action have begun to emerge—including the Senate’s proposal to give Syria 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban, and Russia’s proposal that would wrest control of chemical weapons from Syria.

Public opinion remains strongly opposed to military action. The latest CNN poll found that more than seven in 10 Americans say the proposed strike would not achieve significant goals for the United States. A similar amount believe it’s not in the national interest for the country to get involved in Syria’s civil war.

Obama and Rice’s pleas yesterday for “every adult American” to watch those videos is perhaps correct. We should watch those gruesome videos. We should be aware of the unfathomable horrors that Syrians are facing on the ground. We should witness, as best we can first-hand, the effects of Assad’s actions against his own people. But we should also watch many other kinds of videos too—testimony from journalists on the ground in Syria, policy-makers, academics and activists. In the era of 21st century warfare, where information abounds, we should be well-informed, but can’t afford to be undiscerning.

Where are the STEM jobs?

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on May 24, 2013. 
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Republicans and Democrats appear to agree on at least one thing: that the United States is facing a STEM (science, technology engineering and math) crisis. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that he wants to “reward schools” that focus on STEM classes, for they are “the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” And as far to the other end of the political spectrum as you can get, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas deemed May 6-12 to be the first ever “Celebration of STEM Education Week in Texas.”

I’m an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University — by all measures, a very STEM-oriented institution. I’m studying history and sociology, and it’s quite common for students like me to envy those with academic talents enabling them to major in fields like chemical engineering or neuroscience. Bleak job reports and doomsday rhetoric from our nation’s leaders reinforce this idea that maybe the remainder of us studying the liberal arts are somehow putting a drain on our society, and preventing the United States from “competing effectively” with other nations.

And yet, it turns out that the job prospects for my STEM-oriented classmates may not be so great either.

Recently, the Economic Policy Institute released a report that challenged conventional wisdom; the report says that over half of students with STEM degrees each year are unable to find STEM employment upon graduation. Additionally, STEM wages have not budged in over a decade. Stagnant wages and low rates of STEM job placement strongly indicate a surplus of STEM workers, not a dearth. The problem points to a lack of jobs, not of qualified workers.

Of course, science, technology, engineering and math are important fields, and we should aim to provide exemplary education for students interested in such subjects. But there is a danger in creating a false hope that if only we got everyone to switch from English to math, our economy would suddenly soar. Unemployment in the United States is at 7.5 percent, which is 3.2 points higher than the pre-recession low. The deep-seated unemployment in our country will require not only job training in STEM fields but also things like monetary and fiscal stimulus to boost employment during this rough period.

The alleged STEM crisis has also been a popular point of agreement among lawmakers and tech moguls as Congress struggles to draft an immigration reform bill. It’s been politically safe to say that we must carve an easy path for STEM foreign workers to come to our country in order to boost our global competitiveness — in fact, one of the few amendments accepted in the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill this week was a provision to increase the number of visas for such high-skill workers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently launched a new organization, called FWD.us, to bolster support for, among other things, an increase in the number of visas granted to foreign skilled workers.

However, Science Careers, a branch of Science magazine, reported that the bill would make already congested labor markets even more competitive with the influx of foreign workers. Additionally, STEM labor force expert Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who spoke in April at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding the proposed immigration legislation, adamantly refutes the notion that there is an overall STEM shortage in the United States. He argues that H1-B and other worker visa programs have lowered wages and allowed for more labor exploitation in domestic STEM markets.

The 844-page immigration bill would quadruple or quintuple the number of high-skill visas currently allowed in the United States. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Elizabeth Dwoskin writes, “If you’re a recent college graduate, a doctoral candidate, or a highly skilled professional who has been in the job market the past few years, you know it’s rough out there. But if the immigration overhaul proposed in the Senate … becomes law, it’s likely to get a lot rougher.”

The bill would be great for businesses like Mr. Zuckerberg’s that are looking to hire talented workers at lower prices. However, for American citizens graduating with STEM degrees and struggling to find employment today, it may not look so great.

Science, technology, engineering and math are important skills in the 21st century economy. But unfortunately, even they turn out to be no guarantee.

Opening the door to peace

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 25, 2013.

Given how low the expectations were for President Barack Obama’s highly publicized trip to the Middle East, it may not be saying much to declare that he exceeded them. But given the precarious state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it would also be easy to underappreciate just how crucial his efforts may prove to be in the long quest for a lasting peace in the Middle East. When Mr. Obama arrived in Israel, he faced many who believed that the possibility of a two-state solution was on its death bed, if not gone already. Although the president brokered no breakthrough, he did make it appear that, for at least a little while longer, a negotiated peace deal is still a legitimate option.

On the second day of his trip, Mr. Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem that was well received by both the spectators in the audience and the Israeli and international press. This is not to be understated — in a conflict where distrust, cynicism and skepticism on both sides are at soaring levels, President Obama’s ability to speak to the concerns and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians was crucial. Raising hopes is a key variable in this conflict, where the element most lacking in negotiations is often political will.

Mr. Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians to see the world through each others’ eyes and made clear that he can do so — something that many Israelis in particular had doubted. The president emphasized that peace is “necessary, just, and possible” — necessary for Israel’s security and viability as Jewish democracy, just because Palestinians living under military occupation deserve a state of their own, and possible, because Israel is the strongest country in the region, with the U.S. as its unconditional ally, and with leaders like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who can be a “true partner.”

The president acknowledged that a two-state solution is far from guaranteed. However, with his legacy still to be decided and no election in the near future, the time for strong U.S. diplomatic leadership appears to be ripening. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a prioritized issue, and he is set to lead exploratory talks over the next few weeks, with the hopes of direct negotiations thereafter.

On a symbolic front, the trip was certainly a success and erased Israeli doubts about Mr. Obama’s understanding of their views that had lingered since his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo four years ago. But President Obama’s trip to Israel yielded some surprising tangible results as well.

At Mr. Obama’s urging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for actions taken by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a flotilla attempting to breach a blockade of Gaza. Nine were killed in the raid, which drew international condemnation. Both countries agreed to restore ambassadors and normalize relations. This unexpected reconciliation is good news for several reasons, notably that any legitimate peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians would need the backing of Turkey, a stable and strong country in the Middle East and a pillar of American foreign policy in the region.

On Monday, again at Mr. Obama’s urging, Israel announced that it would release withheld payments to the Palestinian Authority, funds that the Israeli government suspended after the Palestinian Authority successfully sought to upgrade its status at the United Nations in November. That is another step meant to help build confidence between the two sides to restart negotiations, as well as to disempower Hamas in the Gaza strip.

To be sure, Mr. Obama has made serious mistakes in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past, and his commitment to Israel and the peace process in general has been questioned by many at home and abroad. However, following a trip that yielded tangible results as well as smart, pragmatic, and inspiring rhetoric, Mr. Obama has provided himself with at least a chance to lead Israelis and Palestinians to a negotiated peace.

Obama Must Work Toward Two States

Published Originally in the JHU Politik on November 18, 2012.

Let us be clear: it is never a “convenient” time to work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We live in a tumultuous world, with many serious foreign policy problems happening all at once.

And, unfortunately, due to the nature of our political system, an American president has only so much political capital, time, and space to act on a number of issues before the next election cycle approaches.

In his second term, President Obama will need to deal with the rising possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, plan for the safe withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, decide how to proceed with his controversial drone-strike policies, secure strong economic and military interests in Asia, and address problems that have yet to materialize. However, the time to use vigorous U.S. diplomatic leadership to negotiate a two-state solution is now; it will not be any easier four years down the line. Many experts agree that the window to achieve such a peace deal, –a deal supported in principle by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and every U.S. Administration since George H.W. Bush–is diminishing. Both sides know what the agreement would look like: what we now need is the political will to achieve it.

The relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is strained, yet it is imperative that the two leaders get past their political differences and work together for two states. The two-state solution is simply the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, and for Palestinians to be freed from a 45-year military occupation and obtain the full political rights they deserve.

Negotiating peace is also a national security interest for the United States. We spend billions of dollars annually on Israeli security, but countries with clearly defined borders are more secure and better able to defend themselves against threats.

In 2009, Obama visited the Middle East, and Israelis understandably felt snubbed that he failed to stop to meet with leaders in Israel. But despite the lack of presidential speeches in Israel, actions speak louder than words. Under Obama’s leadership, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, have all publicly stated that the security relationship between Israel and the United States has never been stronger. The amount of financial and military sup- port the Obama Administration has given to Israel is unprecedented.

Netanyahu received a lot of justly-deserved flack from Israelis and the international community during the U.S presidential election for intervening on behalf of Governor Mitt Romney. As Israeli Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz, asked of Netanyahu in the Knesset, “Who are you trying to replace? The Administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” Netanyahu was open about his distrust of Obama’s strength, determination and capabilities, despite the praise that Obama had received from Israel’s intelligence and defense community.

On the Palestinian side, there is a partner for peace. Recently in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas declared: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital… The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.” Hold no illusions: if the Palestinian Authority collapses (as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pledged to ensure if the Palestinians seek upgraded non-member status at the U.N.), the next Palestinian leader will not be so moderate, or so inclined to work towards a two-state solution. An inability to reach an agreement with Abbas and the PLO will only strengthen the hand of Hamas, making it more difficult to deal with the situation in Gaza. Rocket fire from Gaza is not an example of why peace is impossible, but how the absence of negotiations and agreements perpetuates an endless cycle of violence that leads nowhere.

Obama must use some newly acquired political capital to revitalize the peace process. Netanyahu, Abbas, and Obama must move past rhetorical games and work to- gether for a long-term secure and just future. Early in 2013, I would hope that Obama travels to Israel and Palestine, making clear to both sides that the peace process will be a priority. The United States wants and needs their President to act forcefully and urgently, before it is too late.

Re: The “History” of Marriage

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same-sex marriages, quite a few reactions have flooded the opinion pages, cable networks and blog sites. Of course, people are entitled to their differing views on the subject; and President Obama’s announcement certainly can be seen as a divisive one. It angers not only many conservatives, but also groups that are considered at the base of the Democratic Party, specifically African-Americans and Latinos. However, at a time when Gallup polls report that 50% of all Americans support same-sex marriage, this public affirmation from the President of the United States marks an important moment in history.

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photo credit: msnbc.com

And yet, I almost refrain from using the word “history”, a term that opponents of same-sex marriage have so regularly abused and exploited. The word itself faces the threat of being rendered meaningless.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared in 2003, “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Recently Romney spoke at Liberty University, where he reaffirmed his position of nine years ago. He spoke of the “enduring institution of marriage,” one that defines itself as “a relationship between one man and one woman.”

He has other conservative supporters, of course. In January, Newt Gingrich boldly associated gay marriage with Paganism. Gingrich said, “It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament…the effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Conservative blogger, Erick Erickson writes, “In the past few decades, many people have decided that several thousand years of human history can be ignored in favor of unproven claims of happiness, fairness, progress, and an expanded notion of equality.”

It is imperative to do some fact checking of these ‘historical’ claims.

When Newt Gingrich invokes marriages from the Old and New Testament, is he counting the one where Jacob had two wives? Or where King David had eight wives? Or where King Solomon had 700 wives?

When Mitt Romney speaks about the “enduring institution” of marriage, does he mean the marriages of ancient Egypt where royal siblings would legally marry one another in order to keep their royal bloodlines pure? Or the marriages of the ancient Romans where daughters were human forms of currency, used to help form strategic alliances and strengthen the military position of the family?

Marriage is an evolving institution. It is both deceptive and manipulative to speak of the history of marriage as a stable, un-changing tradition. To be against gay-marriage is one thing; to depict marriage as a fixed institution is another.

Wedding vows, as we know them today certainly have not been around for “thousands” of years. The vows with the well known “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” come from a man named Thomas Cranmer in 1549.

Society did not really even make the switch to marrying for love, a period known in sociology as “affective individualism”, until the Victorian Era. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria became the revered icons for a loving marriage. People began to grow distasteful of arranged marriages for economic purposes, and began to seek new meaning, namely love, in the institution of marriage.

When Erick Erickson argues that we’re ignoring “thousands of years of human history” I think the real question is which history is he referring to? Which marriage structure is he claiming we should fight to preserve? Arranged-marriages between a man and a woman? Polygamic marriages?

And if Erickson does mean marriages for love between a man and a woman—well, that is one of the most recent historical phenomena of them all.

Military Controversies Must be Reported On

Here is an article I had published this week, 4/30/12, in our weekly political publication, the JHU Politik. 
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On April 18, the Los Angeles Times did the right thing when it released several photographs of U.S soldiers posing inappropriately with the remains of Taliban suicide bombers in the Zabol province of Afghanistan. The photos, taken in February of 2010, were purportedly of members from the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta criticized the newspaper’s decision, arguing that it put innocent U.S. solders at risk and was a matter that should have been handled internally.

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Photo Credit: LA Times

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Photo Credit: LA Times

It is true that this is a particularly delicate time for U.S-Afghan relations. In January, a video went viral on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. The following month, several copies of the Koran were accidentally burned at a U.S base, which resulted in riots and deaths for both Afghan citizens and U.S troops. Then in March, a U.S Army sergeant massacred two Afghan villages, killing 17 people in a nighttime raid.

It would have been tempting for the LA Times to not publish these photos.  They might have argued that  from a national security standpoint, the timing was not right for such public knowledge. However, the newspaper took the brave route, and did its job.

In response to criticism, the LA Times released a statement that said, “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

The Army launched a criminal investigation after the LA Times showed them official copies of the photos, which were given to the paper by a soldier from the involved division. The Army strongly condemned the actions in the photographs.

“It is a violation of Army standards to pose with corpses for photographs outside of officially sanctioned purposes,” said George Wright, an Army spokesman. “Such actions fall short of what we expect of our uniformed service members in deployed areas.”

The role of the press, is not in the job of doing PR. While of course editors will always have to make hard choices about what does and does not go to print, they do have an obligation to the American people to inform them of the truth, even if it is ugly or shameful.

Some alleged that the Times could have written about the event without publishing the photos. But  it is much harder for the government to dismiss such military abuses as abstractions when citizens are exposed to actual images of the crime.  The reactions to images of the My Lai massacre and the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prove as much.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “we’re disappointed” that the pictures were published. But criticism should be kept to the culprits of the abuse, not the journalists who shed light on it. The Obama Administration’s “disappointment” for the choices of the free press is troubling. The American people are paying for these wars and have the right to review evidence of abuse. They have a right to see these photographs, even if they are, as we’re told, exceptions to normal conduct.

It’s unclear how these photographs will impact US-Afghan relations or change future military training.  But what we do know is this: the American people should work to resist the increasing militarization of our American government, and continue to firmly advocate for our democratic free press.