Monday Morning Open Thread

It would be “only” a gesture — but what an important one. The Washington Post, yesterday:

Today… there is growing sentiment inside the White House that President Obama, who in his first year envisioned a world without nuclear weapons, should cap his final year with a grand symbolic gesture in service of a goal that remains well out of reach.

No final decision has been made, but aides have begun exploring the possibility of Obama spending several hours in Hiroshima in May, after attending the Group of Seven Summit in Ise-Shima, halfway between Tokyo and Hiroshima. One senior Obama administration official, in an interview, suggested that the president could potentially deliver a speech there that evokes the nonproliferation themes of his address in Prague in 2009. Such a move would draw international attention in a more emotional fashion than did his nuclear security summit in Washington last week…

White House aides say they are confident that Obama can pay respects to the victims of the war — on both sides of the Pacific — without provoking a major political backlash in the United States. The feeling within the White House is that a Hiroshima visit, while not crucial to the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance, would offer the president another opportunity to recognize history without being, in his words, “imprisoned” by it…

The Post, today:

HIROSHIMA, Japan — Secretary of State John F. Kerry paid an emotional visit Monday to a museum and marker near ground zero in the city where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in the waning days of World War II.

Kerry and his fellow foreign ministers from six other powerful democracies first toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum, where exhibits display the aftermath of the bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” — from charred tricycles and melted roof tiles to cancerous tongues and models of people with melting skin.

Then they walked solemnly to lay wreaths of white and pink carnations at a cenotaph that frames an eternal flame and the skeletal ruins of the one, dome-shaped building left standing. They approached the marker past about 800 elementary schoolchildren from neighborhood schools who cheered and waved the national flags of the visiting diplomats, in a calculated effort to keep the focus on the future and efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons….

“While we will revisit the past and honor those who perished, this trip is not about the past,” Kerry said before a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister. “It’s about the present and the future particularly, and the strength of the relationship that we have built, the friendship that we share, the strength of our alliance, and the strong reminder of the imperative we all have to work for peace for peoples everywhere.”…

Apart from appreciating, once again, how fortunate we have been to have Barack Obama as our President, what’s on the agenda as we start another week?

Late Night (Papal) Bull Session Open Thread: B-B-B-Bernie and the Pope

Okay, Sen. Sanders has been in politics for more than fifteen minutes, it’s not like he’s gonna turn down an audience with the Pope. But maybe he should’ve checked the small print a little more carefully before people started comparing him to Kim Davis. Per Bloomberg Politics:

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s plan to attend a Vatican-sponsored conference put him in the middle of a diplomatic row as a senior Vatican official accused the senator of showing “monumental discourtesy” in angling for an invitation that puts a political cast on the gathering.

Sanders, whose foreign policy experience is under attack by competitor Hillary Clinton, said Friday he was “very excited” to have been invited to the conference on economic and social issues hosted by a pontifical academy in Rome on April 15. It will put him at the seat of the Roman Catholic Church four days before the New York primary.

It has also inserted Sanders into a dispute among Vatican officials. The president of the academy said Friday that Sanders didn’t follow proper protocol — he failed to contact her office — and that his presence threatens to make the event political. The academy’s chancellor said he arranged the invitation and defended the Vermont senator.

“Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons,” Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which is hosting the conference, said in a telephone interview. “He may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly — not that he will.”…

[Campaign manager Jeff] Weaver said on Bloomberg Television’s “With All Due Respect” Friday that Sanders has “great affinity” for the pope and his message on the moral economy, adding that he has no intention of canceling the trip to continue campaigning in New York, which will be a pivotal contest in the Democratic race.

“Some things are more important than politics,” Weaver said. “When you get invited by the Vatican, I think you go.”

The office of the pope moved to distance the pontiff from the visit. Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said Sanders had been invited “not by the pope but by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.” Lombardi told the Italian news agency Ansa: “For the moment there is no expectation that there will also be a meeting with the pope.”…

So it looks like the pundits on social media are settling on a “not well served by his advisers” narrative. (Fingers are being pointed at Jeffrey Sachs, for reasons.) Ever since the NYTimes article where said advisers got a (perhaps premature) chance to blame each other for the campaign’s “early missteps”, it’s been mooted that Tad “Grifter” Devine and Jeff “Comic-Book Proprietor” Weaver are keeping an eye on the emergency exits just in case. (It’d been more chivalrous not to settle on castigating Jane Sanders for her foolish quibbling about his quote-unquote Senate job, but then, she’s been married long enough to have no illusions about the BernieBros, amateur or professional.)

The Vatican, after all, has its own status as a city-state to consider. The Holy See is certainly well aware of how the Kim Davis kerfuffle — not to mention the Repubs’ attempt to make Netanyahu their sock puppet last year — did not go over quite as planned. (I hadn’t been aware that had a ‘FALSE: Pope Francis endorses Sanders‘ entry, but they’ve dutifully updated it now!)

Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words

I’ll have actual analysis on today’s bombing in Brussels either tomorrow or Thursday once more solid information has been reported out. In the meantime, and in response to some of the responses from elected officials in the US regarding today’s bombings in Brussels, I’m going to simply post these pictures. They say far more, and speak far more eloquently than I could, about what happens when we respond to challenges, crises, and threats in an emotional and politicized manner and attribute guilt by superficial association.




Heart Mountain Internment Camp***


Kooskia Internment Camp****


Minidoka Internment Camp*****


Dining Hall at the Fresno Assembly Center******

* Image from here.

** Image from here.

*** Image from here.

**** Image from here.

***** Image from here.

****** Image from here.

The Annual Banging of the Likud War Drums

AIPAC was today so I have worse than normal levels of irritation with my fellow Democrats, who seem to think it was no big deal for HRC to go there and crap all over Obama, equate divestment with anti-Semitism, pretend that it is Israel who lacks a partner in peace and not the Palestinians, and so on. Basically, everyhting that makes me not want to vote for Hillary was on display today. So help me, she is going to have us in a new war in the Middle East midway through her term.

That, on the other hand, is better than Trump who will stumble his way into a war in the first 18 months or Cruz, who I just watched, who quite possibly could launch nukes in the first 100 days.

I find Ted Cruz fascinating and repulsive at the same time. He’s like an infected swollen boil that I can’t stop trying to pop. I honestly have never met anyone who creates such an instantaneous repellent feeling. Not even Eric Cantor.

I think I finally understand what it feels like to be trypophobic.

The Strong Do What They Can and the Weak Suffer What They Must

I normally stay out of the domestic politics side of things here at Balloon Juice, especially around the current Presidential primaries – on either side, other than posting debate open threads. But I’ve been watching tonight’s GOP Primary Debate on delay – I set the DVR as I had some stuff to do and I’ve just gotten to Dana Bash’s questions on Social Security. As I listened to the different candidates’ answers to her question I was struck by Mr. Trump’s response. Mr. Trump, as part of his answer to the Social Security question, delineated a number of the places that we have military personnel deployed on a more or less permanent basis. While I’m paraphrasing, he stated that we protect Saudi Arabia and Japan and South Korea and we don’t get anything for it. That the Saudi’s were, at one point, making a billion dollars a day and they weren’t doing anything for us, despite our protecting them. And that we’re going to renegotiate and get better deals for what we’re doing militarily and that will provide the funds to shore up Social Security.

This is a very important glimpse into how Mr. Trump understands foreign and defense policy. Intimating that the US would, under his leadership, negotiate foreign basing of US military personnel and security alliances in exchange for payment is a major break with how the US has and continues to do business. What Mr. Trump is proposing is that America would stop being a superpower and instead become an empire. This is something that not even the most hawkish neo-Conservatives or neo-liberal interventionists have proposed. At least not publicly or in any forum I’ve ever seen or heard.

The US, despite being the remaining superpower, is not an empire. We do not require tribute from those we partner with or protect. This is why, despite some political rhetoric that the Iraq invasion and Operation Iraqi Freedom would pay for itself, we didn’t seize Iraq’s oil fields or take over their petroleum resources, processing, and distribution system and infrastructure. The reality of what we do is just the opposite. Quite often, through various programs covered under Foreign Military Sales and other military to military diplomatic programs, we pay for some of our partners and allies to participate with us. And at other times and with other allies and partners, they pay to purchase our weapons and training packages. These interactions, both those that we pay for and those that our allies and partners do, can run the gamut from providing material and equipment and training to providing financial assistance for foreign military officers to come and attend our Professional Military Education programs.*

What Mr. Trump is suggesting in his answer about where to get the money to shore up Social Security is a radical change to how the United States does business. It means changing the United States from being the sole remaining superpower into being an empire. Empires seek tribute in exchange for their beneficent protection. One of the major changes in Athens, and Athenian democracy, a change that was not for the better, occurred prior to and as one of the contributing factors to the Peloponnesian War when it started abusing the tribute collected by the Delian League. While American democracy and Athenian democracy are not very analogous, the Athenian slide into empire should stand as a cautionary tale for the US and place charging for basing American military personnel beyond the pale. The Athenian envoy to Melos stated, in one of the most important and cautionary portions of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, that: “the Strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. The taking of tribute and the path of empire leads to the Athenian destruction of Melos and that is not a path that the US should follow.

* Full disclosure: during my assignment as the Cultural Advisor at the US Army War College (2010-2014), I was the academic advisor (front line supervisor), the primary research advisor, and/or the faculty/community sponsor for almost a dozen senior foreign officers attending the US Army War College resident course as International Fellows. In my professional opinion the presence of these gentlemen in the schoolhouse provided as much, if not more, benefit to the American officers in the resident program than it did to these officers themselves. They brought unique perspectives to the global strategic problems that we were grappling with in the seminar room, as well as important cross-cultural perspectives to critical and strategic thinking and how to go about making strategy and policy.

Tuesday Morning Open Thread: Up Helly Aa!

I have just enough Viking blood to find the whole Up Helly Aa concept charming. Per The Scotsman:

IT is one of the biggest and most famous fire festivals in the world and goes ahead every year – no matter the weather – on the last Tuesday of January.

Come heavy snow, gales, rain, sleet or even sub-zero conditions, Up Helly Aa in Shetland will see over 1,000 torch-baring guizers parade through the island’s capital of Shetland before setting a Viking Galley ablaze.

After that, there is one ‘helly’ of a party which continues with dancing across numerous halls throughout Lerwick until the early hours of the next morning…

Trevor Jamieson, of Shetland Museum and Library, said: “The significance of the name UpHelly-Aa has been variously interpreted over the years, but most commentators suggest that the expression owes its modern form to the Old Norse for weekend or holiday being the word Helly, thus Up-Helly-Aa being the end of helly or holidays…

“There was a strongly romantic Nordic revival towards the end of the nineteenth century, and it was perhaps unavoidable that the festival would somehow become tied with the Vikings.

“The first galley was burnt in 1889…

On the evening of Up Helly Aa Day, over 1,000 heavily-disguised men form ranks in the darkened streets. They shoulder stout fencing posts, topped with paraffin-soaked sacking.

More than 40 squads of guizers visit a dozen halls in rotation. They’re all invited guests at what are still private parties. At every hall each squad performs its ‘act’, perhaps a skit on local events, a dance display in spectacular costume, or a topical send-up of a popular TV show or pop group.

Every guizer has a duty to dance with at least one of the ladies in the hall, before taking yet another dram, soaked up with vast quantities of mutton soup and bannocks…

It’s January in the Shetlands, one needs all the anti-freeze one can drink!

Much more detail (and charming pics) at the link. This year’s procession will be livestreamed here, starting at 19.00 GMT (2pm EST, if my math is correct).

I first ran into the story of Up Helly Aa at Slate, with Matthew Brenmer’s “Fire Island: Europe’s largest fire festival features Vikings, ninjas, and men in dresses”

Neil Robertson stood atop his Viking longship, staring blankly into the distance. His shaggy face was flushed red with the heat of a thousand flaming torches, and the plume of his raven-winged helmet shook gently in the breeze. The men carrying these torches were raucous, drunk on joy and the whiskey they kept in their tunics. They gathered in a great incendiary ring around the longboat that clogged the night air with thick smoke. Some of the men, like Robertson, dressed as Vikings, while others came as women, Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers.

The crowd shouted up at their man, calling his name and pleading for him to do what they had all come to see. Robertson, however, remained impervious to their pleas. He stayed silent and seemed somewhere else in his mind. He was euphoric but also incredulous. He had waited 15 years for this moment. He had seen countless other men go before him, and it was now his turn.

The roars from the mob were getting louder. The torches heaved and swelled in a sea of fire, but Robertson held onto his time for just a second longer. He couldn’t let it finish.

Then he raised his ax. The noise stopped. Torches everywhere lowered. The air was bitter with paraffin and heavy with the crowd’s breath.

Fifteen years had come to this…

Some Thoughts on the Prisoner Swap and Iran Sanctions

I’ll have a nice, Day 16 update on the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge sometime tomorrow – I promise.

Right now I want to address the prisoner swap with the Iranians, as well as the initial lifting of sanctions for 90 days for Iranian compliance with the P5+1 Accords and the limited sanctions we’ve just imposed on select individuals and companies.

One of the things that is very clear in our inability to effectively deal with Iran is not just Iranian intransigence or hardliners, but rather our own special brand of American domestic politics. This screws up a lot of our policy discussions and limits the strategies we develop on a wide variety of domestic and international issues because it places artificially narrow limits on what our objectives might be and how we might go about achieving them.

This has certainly been the case with Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. American’s domestic attitudes towards Iran have been locked into a simplistic and binary “Iran-evil, US-good” dynamic since the Embassy was overrun and American personnel were taken hostage. While the Iranian religious authorities, the folks that actually run Iran, have also done a good job of installing this belief in Iran too, it has really complicated American policy making and strategy in the Middle East. The biggest problem has been the inability to conduct even the most basic interactions. Along with the sanction’s regime that we imposed on Iran we also broke ties using a cut out when it was necessary to communicate. We watched and listened to what Iran did/does and always saw the worst and they did the same thing. The invasion of Iraq and the strategic failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom that led to the fragmenting/unravelling of Iraqi state and society was actually a gift to Iran. And the Bush 43 Administration’s stopping of two attempts by the Iranians to engage didn’t help the situation either. I’m not suggesting that the Iranians were completely on the level, but this wasn’t even trust, but verify. It was simply we aren’t going to interact at all.

The P5+1 negotiations, as well as the separate negotiations leading to this past week’s prisoner exchange, mark something very different. These have both been small, steady steps that have begun the process of creating a small amount of trust between the US and Iran. Iran’s actually decommissioning and entombing the Arak reactor as part of the P5+1 certification process is a tremendous deal. This is because Iran desperately wants out from under the sanctions regime and to be allowed back into the global community as just one nation among 191 others. Living up to its P5+1 obligations helps to get Iran there. As the sanctions are lifted something new is going to happen between Iran and the US – Iranians and Americans are going to begin to interact with each other on a more normal basis.

Iran announced last Fall that it would update its aging fleet of commercial airplanes as soon as the sanctions were listed. This is now going to happen. Not only will there be economic interaction, but there will be professional interaction. Iranians will need to come to the US and Germany and Americans and Germans will need to go to Iran to train pilots on the new Boeing and Airbus platforms and teach engineers and mechanics how to maintain them. These interpersonal interactions are going to drive more change in Iran than almost anything else we could do. The detractors of the diplomacy that has brought us the P5+1 Agreement and the prisoner exchange are also the biggest boosters and proponents of the free market and its power. The opening with Iran, made possible through diplomacy, is an opening for free market interactions. Interactions between people, as well as interactions in the economic realm.

No matter how reactionary and authoritarian the Iranian religious authorities are, they cannot stop those signals. The have reached a be careful what you wish for, you just might get it moment. They wanted out from under the sanctions regime. They wanted to be just one state among 191 others. For the first time in thirty-six years they are. And now it will be interesting to see what happens as a result.

And this is why the targeted sanctions that were just announced on specific individuals and businesses is both a good approach and a potentially effective response. Punishing Iran, as in all of Iran and Iranians in general, never got us what we really wanted over the past thirty-six years – a real change in the Iranian state and society. While there’s no guarantee that we will see change now that the P5+1 compliance has led to the lifting of sanctions, nor what kind of change it will be, there is a greater chance of it happening now than even a year ago.