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What Netanyahu Should Say (And Do) Now

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 20:15
"My fellow Israelis, as the holidays end I thought it important to address you and give an assessment of recent events and an update on my thoughts for the future. However, this speech will also be for a wider audience. I am also addressing the Palestinians, the rest of the Arab world, and the many countries that have an interest in seeing real peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

"I would first like to acknowledge and thank President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for trying so hard to find a common ground between our two peoples. Unfortunately, it was not to be. I am not going to continue the aptly termed 'blame game.' We are beyond that. Few minds are changed by fault finding. Let me just say we wished the results had been different. I have said and continue to believe that living side-by-side in peace with our Palestinian brothers is going to be the only solution that will ensure a healthy and prosperous future. We all need to live securely within our borders and be sure that our neighbors hold peace as the highest goal for their peoples.

"We do not feel that the Palestinians or their Arab brethren have ever had that goal in mind. Since even before the UN partition plan in 1947 and the war of 1948, the Arab world has sought to crush us. Even though Jews have lived uninterrupted in the land of Zion for millennia, even though Jesus and Muhammad built religions based on our forefathers, the region's countries have tried to portray us as foreigners, as strangers in our own land.

"Sadly, to defend our land we have had to fight at least three major wars and countless smaller ones. We have had to defend against an endless series of small attacks and countless acts of terror aimed at our civilians. Women and children have not been spared; in fact, they have often been targeted. We have answered each and every one of these attacks very harshly, hoping that our enemies would feel and understand our resolve. It has been costly for us. Our sons and daughters in the prime of their lives have been felled, and our cities and even our small border towns have been attacked. Our people have been slaughtered in foreign lands. We have been attacked and murdered when we went to pray, came home from work, or gone out for a meal.

"Yet here we are today, stronger than ever. Those who sought to destroy us are destroying themselves. Those who denied our existence are clinging to theirs. The brutality, the beastly violence that our enemies turned on us, they have turned on themselves. We are an island of stability in a sea of struggle and bloodshed. The new wave of refugees flooding adjacent lands has been created by the very same people who made political capital of the Palestinian refugees from our conflict. Our children have hope; our young people can create a decent life for themselves in our vibrant economy. We look around and wish our neighbors would see that they could do this do too, by creating a just society where each person has rights and security, a society full of opportunity and justice.

"We are not afraid of the future. We are not afraid, period. Anyone who thought we were fearful has made a mistake. When we were attacked we fought back. We took the fight to every nook and cranny of our enemies' lands and hideouts. There is no task or mission that our citizens and soldiers are afraid to engage. We know we could crush anyone who wants to hurt us in hours, days or weeks. We have done so in the past and are prepared to do so tomorrow, if necessary.

"However, we could be even stronger. We could be more prosperous. We could be more deeply connected to our friends all over the world. Israel could once again fulfill its biblical role and be a light unto the nations. It is this goal, this strengthening of Israel and its mission in the world, that I want to speak of now.

"Today, with the full approval and support of the army, the intelligence agencies and the people of Israel, I am going to announce a series of steps to try to lessen the conflict between the Palestinians in the West Bank and us. Israel will gradually lift roadblocks, checkpoints and military closures throughout the West Bank. We are extending the security and governance responsibilities of the Palestinian Authority to all of Area B and much of Area C. We will work with the Palestinian Authority to do so in a systematic manner so that they will be able to fulfill the security roles they are assigned. All people in the West Bank will have freedom of movement. What Israel is prepared to do is to take a huge chance, a gamble, that the Palestinians will respond to this initiative -- with peace. Since we could not reach a large overall agreement, perhaps we can reach a smaller one and see if an on-the-ground, step-by-step approach works. If it does and we see a real effort by the Palestinian Authority to bring economic improvement and civil society to the West Bank, additional steps will be taken, ones on which we can mutually agree.

"Two more things need to be said so that there will be no misunderstandings.

"Firstly, Israel, as of today, will diligently enforce the law as it applies to those living in the West Bank. I have ordered the police, the army and the responsible prosecutors and judicial authorities that everyone must live within the law. We will do all we can to ensure that Israelis do not commit illegal acts of violence. If they do, punishment will be swift and meaningful.

"Secondly, the Palestinian reaction will be the key measure of the success of this new effort. If you take our olive branch and use it as a weapon against us, we will get the message. If you use your new freedom of movement to move against us, we will understand that your hatred has yet to be vanquished. If you return to the tactics of before and celebrate the slaughter of children, if you make tents of hospitality for murderers, then we will be sure we were right in separating ourselves, and we will renew our commitment to that separation. You will lose -- for another precious generation -- the freedom to have a better life.

"As for Gaza, there is little to say. They have chosen war and terror. They deny reality; they deny we exist. We will continue to ensure that they cannot hurt us. When they come to understand that their strategy is a losing one, we will talk to them too.

"We live in this neighborhood together. The Europeans do not. The Americans do not. While we thank them for all their interest and help over the decades, it has not brought us peace. Today, with this announcement, I reach across the wall and ask the Palestinians to work with us to make a better life for all the inhabitants of this holy land."

U.S. Warns That Russia Has 'Days, Not Weeks' To Comply With Ukraine Accord

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:55
By NEDRA PICKLER & JULIE PACE, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia has "days, not weeks" to abide by an international accord aimed at stemming the crisis in Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev warned Monday as Vice President Joe Biden launched a high-profile show of support for the pro-Western Ukrainian government. Russia in turn accused authorities in Kiev of flagrantly violating the pact and declared their actions would not stand.

Biden, the highest-ranking American official to visit Ukraine during its conflict with Russia, planned to meet with government officials in the capital of Kiev on Tuesday. The vice president also planned to announce new technical support to help the fledgling government with energy and economic reforms.

Biden's trip comes days after the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and Europe signed an agreement in Geneva calling for Moscow to use its influence to get pro-Russian forces to leave the numerous government buildings they now occupy in cites throughout eastern Ukraine. The U.S. asserted on Monday that publicly available photographs from Twitter and other media show that some of the troops in eastern Ukraine are Russian special forces, and the U.S. said the photos support its case that Moscow is using its military to stir unrest in Ukraine.

There was no way to immediately verify the photographs, which were either taken from the Internet or given to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last week by Ukraine diplomats.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected charges that Moscow was behind the troubles in eastern Ukraine and failing to live up to the Geneva agreement.

"Before putting forth ultimatums to us, demanding fulfillment of something within two-three days or otherwise be threatened with sanctions, we would urgently call on our American partners to fully recognize responsibility for those whom they brought to power and whom they are trying to shield, closing their eyes to the outrages created by this regime and by the fighters on whom this regime leans," Lavrov told a news conference.

Words and actions by Ukrainian leaders are "absolutely unacceptable," he declared.

The U.S. has warned that it will quickly order new economic sanctions on Russian officials and entities if Moscow doesn't follow through on the provisions in last week's accord. Gregory Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said it was still too early to tell whether the deal would succeed, but he added, "The ball is really in Moscow's court in terms of whether they're going to take this diplomatic off-ramp."

"There needs to be concrete results," Pyatt told reporters in Kiev. He said the U.S. would make a decision on whether the agreement is working in "days, not weeks."

While last week's agreement offered a glimmer of hope that the crisis in Ukraine could be resolved peacefully, the accord appears to be fragile at best. The armed pro-Russia groups have refused to leave their occupying positions in eastern Ukraine until the country's acting government resigns. And there was a burst of violence Sunday, with three people killed during a shootout at a checkpoint that was manned by pro-Russian troops.

Ukrainian and Russian officials each blamed the other for instigating the attack. The White House said it was still trying to determine who was responsible and had no independent verification of what transpired.

"Overall, we are concerned about the situation there, and we urge paramilitary groups throughout the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine to lay down their weapons and depart the buildings that they have occupied, as was called for in the accord signed in Geneva last week," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Even as officials sorted through this latest disturbance, the State Department sought to build a public case against Russia for the wider unrest. The photo images released Monday show militants brandishing Russian weapons and wearing uniforms similar to those worn by Russian forces. The militants look similar to the forces that moved into Crimea in March, ahead of a referendum there that resulted in the peninsula being annexed by Russia.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov spoke by telephone Monday but appeared to break little new ground. Russia's foreign ministry said Lavrov told Kerry that the Ukrainian government was unable and unwilling to stop what the Russians call extremists in eastern Ukraine.

Biden planned to meet Tuesday with government leaders who took over after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February following months of protests. He will speak with Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian prime minister and president. The vice president is also scheduled to meet with legislators from across the country and democracy activists before returning to Washington Tuesday night.

He held a series of meetings Monday with U.S. Embassy officials, members of Congress also in Kiev for an update on the crisis and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's chief monitor in Ukraine.

A senior administration official told reporters onboard Air Force Two en route to Kiev that Biden planned to announce new technical support to the Ukrainian government to implement energy and economic reforms. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity to allow Biden to publicly announce any agreements, said the vice president also will follow up on recent U.S. commitments of non-lethal security assistance and discuss what more Washington can offer to help.

Biden also planned to discuss preparations for next month's Ukrainian presidential election and the latest developments in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents are accusing leaders in Kiev of aiming to suppress the country's Russian speakers in the region.

The Obama administration official told reporters that the assistance Biden will announce includes technical expertise to increase production and boost energy efficiency to reduce reliance on oil imports from Russia. The economic help includes advice to make sure international funding is allocated effectively and that all parts of the country are benefiting.

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Julie Pace reported from Washington. AP National Security Writer Lara Jakes in Washington and AP writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Follow Nedra Pickler at http://twitter.com/nedrapickler and Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

What's Wrong With <i>Meet The Press</i>

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:47

NBC's Sunday morning political talk show Meet The Press has one thing going for it that almost no other television show can lay claim to: It will never, ever be cancelled. The reason for this fundamental certainty is that NBC, by continuing the show, can continue to claim that it's got "America's longest-running television show." And NBC is never going to give up that bragging right, for any reason. So the show itself isn't in any kind of trouble, because there will be something airing on Sunday mornings called Meet The Press long after all of us are dead. It's about as permanent as you can get in the media business, in other words. It's been around for well over six decades, and it's not going away any time soon.


On the other hand, whether current host David Gregory is around for very much longer is becoming more of an open question these days, especially after the Washington Post just published a long story about the woeful state of affairs at Meet The Press under Gregory's lead. Ratings are down. Way down -- down to third place, behind both ABC's This Week and CBS's Face The Nation (which is currently leading the ratings pack), although still ahead of Fox News Sunday (which trails far behind in a distant fourth).


While most are focusing on a juicy tidbit from the Post story about a consultant hired to figure out what is wrong -- not with the show, but with Gregory himself -- what struck me was the tenor of the comments on the Washington Post website. Lefties and righties don't much agree on the reasons why, but they do agree on one basic concept: David Gregory is a terrible host. I didn't see a single comment defending him, in fact (although this is a purely subjective sample, I freely admit).


Righties seem convinced that Gregory is bad mostly because of guilt-by-association: NBC News is connected to MSNBC; MSNBC is ultra-liberal; therefore Gregory is nothing more than a shill for the Obama White House. Lefties are more detailed in their analysis of the terribleness of Gregory: he leans way too far to the right, he treats liberals with contempt during interviews while sucking up to conservatives (count the number of times he interrupts Democrats versus interrupting Republicans, just as a quick measure), and he once said mean things about Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden. The one prevailing opinion that seems to be somewhat shared by both sides in the debate is that David Gregory couldn't ask a decent follow-up question if his very life depended on it. The funniest (and snarkiest) comment I noticed: "Yeah, but his hair is perfect!"


One other obvious point frequently made is that David Gregory isn't at all in the same league as Tim Russert, the man who preceded him in the job. But, to be minimally fair to Gregory, this may not matter as much any more. Because the whole Sunday morning chatfest universe has been going through some major changes, and they're likely only going to accelerate in the near future. ABC's George Stephanopoulos may soon be promoted, and CBS's Bob Schieffer is likely to retire within the next year or so. This means there will be a shakeup in the Sunday morning scene similar to the one now going on in late-night television. Younger hosts may take over the whole genre, to put it another way. But this changing of the guard among the hosts will not take place in a vacuum. All of the shows are noticeably also changing their format, a process that has been going on for the past few years.


This is significant (for those that care) because the format for these shows doesn't change very often. Initially, the shows -- as evidenced by the title Meet The Press itself -- were heavily weighted towards actual members of "the press." One politician would sit in front of a whole panel of news reporters and would field questions from them all. You can see this occasionally in the historic clips they run of luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. or one of the Kennedys. It was a much more adversarial setup, with six (or more) reporters asking questions of one person. The shows had a certain "star chamber session" flavor to them, in fact. At some point this format shifted to having just one moderator (who represented all of "the press") asking questions of the interviewees. And then they added panels (or "roundtables" even though the tables often weren't) to hash over the interviews, afterwards. These panels started by consisting of mostly people from the press, but have now morphed into a strange mix of press, partisan political consultants, minor (or former) politicians, and anyone else they feel like inviting that week.


The shows settled into a basic format -- two interview segments of approximately 20 minutes each (sometimes solo interviews, sometimes with one politician from either party facing each other), followed by a 20-minute roundtable panel to end the show. The value of such extended interviews -- which are not seen anywhere else on television news these days -- was that the moderator would hopefully be successful in looking beyond that week's partisan talking points and provoking some real in-depth conversation on serious issues.


Those days are almost over, now. The shows are getting a lot more peripatetic. They flit from mini-interview to panel discussion, hither and yon. More interviews happen, but they are shorter (incidentally, this also allows for many more commercial breaks). Hosts interrupt the people they're supposed to be interviewing with regularity, borrowing a page from cable news shows. Getting politicians themselves to shout over each other is a common goal. Because of this, the guests booked are the ones that can be counted on to be as belligerent as possible. Which means seeing the same old faces, week after week. They look not for the most well-informed politician on any issue, but instead the loudest.


Personally, I think it's a shame that the one remaining place on broadcast television news that tried to get beyond mere talking points seems now to be succumbing to the world of five-minute interview segments that cable news ushered in. When the interview is that short, it's almost guaranteed that talking points are all you'll have time for, to put it another way.


I realize I may be just one grumpy voice shouting in the wind. The ratings, quite obviously, show that the new format the Sunday shows are adopting is better-liked by the public. I'm probably in the minority in my mourning the passing of the 20-minute interview segment. So be it.


Meet The Press is actually behind this curve. ABC seems to be the one leading the move to the "faster-paced" Sunday morning format. Which -- again, to be scrupulously fair -- may be a big problem with NBC's current ratings woes. Meet The Press has already started changing to this new format in the hopes of catching up, and now that they'll be matching their competitors, perhaps Meet The Press will now succeed in the ratings even with David Gregory still in the host's chair. Again: just to be fair to him.


To return to the title of this article, in my humble opinion there are several things wrong with Meet The Press. Booking the same old people over and over again is a big one (just once, I'd like to see a foreign policy segment without either John McCain or Lindsey Graham, for instance). The incredible partisan imbalance among the guests is another (it seems to be running about 2-to-1 Republican, and has been for at least a decade). The fact that truly hard questions are almost never asked by any host is an enormous problem as well -- what I like to call the "we all go to the same inside-the-Beltway cocktail parties" problem (asking hard questions means fewer party invites, to put it another way). And the move to the new "lightning-fast" format is a large problem as well, at least in my book. But all of these problems are shared by all the other Sunday morning shows, to one extent or another.


This leaves only one real conclusion. And if adopting the new format doesn't cause any uptick in the ratings over the next few months, it's going to become an inescapable conclusion even for the NBC News bigwigs: David Gregory is indeed the main problem. If Meet The Press copies the new format with no change in its ratings, then the network executives may come around to an opinion already shared by much of the public (if the Post comments are any measure, at least): David Gregory is an intellectual lightweight. Gregory appears incapable of asking a decent follow-up question -- one that has not been prepared for him ahead of time -- no matter what gets said in his interviews. Even when Meet The Press breaks some actual quote-worthy news during an interview, it's pretty obvious that David Gregory has to be told later on that a scoop happened, because he certainly shows no signs of realizing it at the time.


There is absolutely no danger of Meet The Press being cancelled. The show will go on. Sooner or later, though -- after exhausting all possible format gimmicks -- the higher-ups at NBC may finally realize they chose the wrong guy to host it when Russert died. The good news is that NBC News has a stable of up-and-coming prospects, any one of which could probably do a better job than Gregory. Put someone in the host's chair who has a broad range of political knowledge -- someone who doesn't have to have a flunky look up the facts to realize when a politician is lying, in other words. Meet The Press has a long legacy to live up to, and hopefully it will get the chance to match its former glory once again. After David Gregory leaves, that is.


 


Chris Weigant blogs at:


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post


 

Army Stands Behind 'Searingly Sectarian' Prayer Event Despite Outcry Over Evangelical Ties

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:46
Army officials have refused to withdraw from a May 1 Capitol Hill prayer session that critics said could be seen as an endorsement of “searingly sectarian events.”

While the watch dog group Military Religious Freedom Foundation supports the observation of a National Day of Prayer, it opposes involvement with the National Day of Prayer Task Force, the conservative evangelical Christian non-profit organizing the event. The task force’s chairwoman is Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family.

MRFF founder and president Mikey Weinstein urged the Pentagon to withdraw all support from the event in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on April 17.

“[T]his May 1st National Day of Prayer event is despicably discriminatory as the NDP Task Force comprehensively and quite unapologetically bars and excludes any non-Christians from participation in the running of its events,” Weinstein, a former Air Force member, wrote. “In fact, all NDP Task Force volunteers are required to provide on their applications their ‘testimony’ of their ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ.'”

Weinstein also accused the NDP Task Force of using the event to “promote their rapaciously exclusivist religion as the quasi-official religion of the nation -- not to mention conveying this utterly false perception of the United States of America as a 'Christian nation' to the world by broadcasting the event internationally.”

The military's participation in the event violates several Department of Defense regulations, Weinstein argued, including a Joint Ethics statute barring DOD endorsements of any non-federal entity, such as the NDP Task Force.

According to Weinstein, the complaint was submitted after more than two dozen senior Pentagon civilians and officers contacted the foundation expressing concern over the use of military personnel in the event, the Army Times reported.

Despite the group’s petition, the Army still intends to send a chaplain, color guard, vocalist and band to the prayer event, according to Stars and Stripes.

Scheduled speakers for the event include both Mr. and Mrs. Dobson; Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Rev. Billy Graham; Vonette Bright, Campus Crusade for Christ co-founder; and several current and former lawmakers.

The event’s organizers, including task force vice chairman John Bornschein, defended the event as a nonsectarian gathering organized with military personnel at the request of Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who is sponsoring the National Day of Prayer.

"This is not about proselytizing," Bornschein said on Friday. "This is purely about prayer and praying for our leadership and asking for God's wisdom and blessing over our leaders."

Weinstein, a longtime opponent of Christian conservatives’ influence in the military, dismissed Bornschein’s remarks in an interview with the Army Times Thursday.

“The National Day of Prayer Task Force is to the National Day of Prayer as what a National Football League al Qaeda chapter would be to the National Football League,” Weinstein said.

U.S. Troops In Afghanistan May Be Cut To Fewer Than 10,000

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:26

By Missy Ryan and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON, April 21(Reuters) - The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan may drop well below 10,000 - the minimum demanded by the U.S. military to train Afghan forces - as the longest war in American history winds down, Obama administration officials briefed on the matter say.

Since Afghanistan's general election on April 5, White House, State Department and Pentagon officials have resumed discussions on how many American troops should remain after the current U.S.-led coalition ends its mission this year.

The decision to consider a small force, possibly less than 5,000 U.S. troops, reflects a belief among White House officials that Afghan security forces have evolved into a robust enough force to contain a still-potent Taliban-led insurgency. The small U.S. force that would remain could focus on counter-terrorism or training operations.

That belief, the officials say, is based partly on Afghanistan's surprisingly smooth election, which has won international praise for its high turnout, estimated at 60 percent of 12 million eligible votes, and the failure of Taliban militants to stage high-profile attacks that day.

The Obama administration has been looking at options for a possible residual U.S. force for months.

"The discussion is very much alive," said one U.S. official who asked not to be identified. "They're looking for additional options under 10,000" troops.

There are now about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from 100,000 in 2011, when troop numbers peaked a decade into a conflict originally intended to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


QUESTIONS ABOUT AFGHAN FORCES

With British and other foreign troops scheduled to depart in lock step with U.S. soldiers, the size of any residual U.S. force could add fuel to a debate in Washington over whether Taliban-led violence will intensify amid the vacuum left by Western forces, as some U.S. military officials expect.

Military leaders, including American General Joe Dunford, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has identified 10,000 soldiers as the minimum needed to help train and advise Afghan forces fighting the insurgency, arguing a smaller force would struggle to protect itself.

During a March visit to Washington, Dunford told lawmakers that without foreign soldiers supporting them, Afghan forces would begin to deteriorate "fairly quickly" in 2015. The Afghan air force, still several years away from being self-sufficient, will require even more assistance, he said.

A smaller U.S. force could have other unintended consequences, possibly discouraging already skeptical lawmakers from fully funding U.S. commitments to help fund Afghan forces.

At their current size, Afghan forces will cost at least $5 billion in 2015, a sum far beyond the reach of the Afghan government. The United States has been widely expected to be the largest outside funder for those forces.

The Taliban and other militants have been weakened by more than 12 years of Afghan and NATO assaults, but they still can obtain supplies and plan attacks from Afghanistan's remote mountain regions and tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan.

Some analysts are wary of reducing the U.S. presence to less than 10,000 troops.

"If the White House opts to keep a lower number of troops, it will put more pressure on the Afghan forces and run the risk of squandering their recent progress against the Taliban," said Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst and State Department official now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

A U.S. force significantly below 10,000 might focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism, tracking militants affiliated with a greatly weakened but resilient al Qaeda insurgency based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, officials said.

Debate over the size of a residual U.S. force follows the failure of the U.S. and Afghan governments to finalize a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to authorize a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the deadline for U.S. and NATO troops to conclude their fight against the Taliban.

"The longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission," said Laura Lucas Magnuson, a White House spokeswoman. "Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."

Results of the recent presidential election may not be known for weeks, or months if runoffs take place. But leading candidates have said they will sign the agreement, which has been on hold because of reservations from current Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In late February, Obama announced that the United States might seek to sign the deal with Karzai's successor and possibly keep troops there after 2014 to train and advise Afghan forces and pursue al Qaeda militants.

Some U.S. officials believe Afghan forces will require substantial, hands-on support from foreign troops, in addition to help from the United States. (Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jason Szep and David Lindsey)

Newark Clergy Members Demand Halt To Potentially 'Catastrophic' Schools Plan

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:18
The hits just keep on coming for Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson and her plan to reorganize the district's public schools.

On Friday, a coalition of 77 clergy members from Newark issued a statement calling upon Anderson, acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe and Governor Chris Christie to place a moratorium on the district’s One Newark plan. The clergy members said the plan is already “producing irreversible changes and fomenting widespread outrage” and has “caused unnecessary instability in the Newark public school system, as well as the lives of thousands of its families.”

"The disruptive and divisive nature of the One Newark Public School Plan could have catastrophic and far reaching consequences for the children of Newark, the reputation of the State of New Jersey, and have implications for urban education nationally," said the letter.

The statement comes after months of controversy surrounding One Newark, which was first proposed by Anderson (who is a Chris Christie appointee) in December. As the implementation process began, community members criticized the plan, saying it was developed in a vacuum and would expand the influence of charter schools. The city's public schools officials have countered by saying that they solicited and continue to solicit input from local families and stakeholders, and that families have been quick to participate in the plan’s expanded school choice options.

The clergy statement does not explicitly take a stance on charter schools, although it says the "primary responsibility of the Newark School Superintendent should be to ensure excellent educational opportunities in the traditional Newark public school system.”

The letter also paints a picture of a school district in which the will of the people has been actively ignored. Indeed, the state has run the Newark School District since 1995, and the democratically elected school board acts only in an advisory capacity.

Anderson, for her part, has painted herself as fearless reformer willing to make unpopular decisions in order to produce change.

Since Chris Christie named Anderson to her post in 2011, her reforms have triggered protests and a vote of no confidence from the local school board. However, in 2013, the governor said he was going to renew her contract anyway. "We run the school district in Newark, not them [the community],” Christie reasoned at the time.

In response to the clergy members' statement, Newark Public Schools Executive Director of Community Affairs and Engagement Ruben Roberts issued a response, saying that One Newark would continue moving forward.

From Roberts' response:

While we respect and appreciate hearing the opinions of our community leaders, we do not believe a moratorium is in the best interest of the kids and families we serve. As many of the clergy know well given their participation in conversations and feedback sessions surrounding the creation of the One Newark plan, much of what they now recommend has in fact already been done.

However, various education groups and politicians expressed support for the clergy members' statement over the weekend.

“Throughout Newark's history, Newark's Clergy has always been at the forefront of issues affecting the well being of Newark's families. This is yet another example of the Clergy's commitment to the Newark community,” said a statement provided to The Huffington Post from the City Association of Supervisors and Administrators, a group that opposes the One Newark plan.

Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, whose education platform has largely been framed in opposition to Anderson, said in a statement provided to Huff Post that “Ms. Anderson continues to run away from input by Newark citizens and continues to carry out her relentless drive to close our neighborhood schools.”

On the other hand, Mashea Ashton, chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund, told The Wall Street Journal that she believes the plan should move forward.

The New Jersey Department of Education could not be reached for comment by press time.

Andrew Sullivan's Own Revisionist History

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:13
There's an uproar in the LGBT community about Jo Becker's new book, Forcing the Spring, in which the author marks momentum for the marriage equality movement with the legal fight against California's Proposition 8. That fight was led by Chad Griffin, who currently heads the Human Rights Campaign.

The book's loudest and most vociferous critic is Andrew Sullivan, who accuses Becker of promoting Griffin's role at the expense of decades of advocacy before him. In exchange, he charges, she got behind-the-scenes information about, among other things, President Obama's marriage "evolution" during the 2012 elections. And, of course, it's juicy revelations that make for bestsellers.

Before writing anything more about Becker and her book, Sullivan should recognize that he's done much the same thing: spinning history to fit a narrative that suits his own political and marketing purposes.

You see, Sullivan has a long-running grudge against the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT organization, arguing that it's ineffective, self-perpetuating and useless. And over the years, he tried writing the Human Rights Campaign (a beneficiary of Becker's book by extension of Griffin) out of the equation in the fight for LGBT equality. His bombastic columns earn him clicks, controversy and, presumably, dollars.

Here's a representative Sullivan money quote (as he might say):

[HRC is] a corporation designed to milk the gay market for money to hire more fundraisers and marketers to milk more gay pockets. It's a racket with a plush new multi-million dollar headquarters and salaries that would make corporate America blush. Have they actually done anything for gay rights? After a couple of decades observing them, my own view is: nada.

Nothing?

Let's start with the issue in question: marriage equality. In his current Dish columns about Becker's book, he writes gigabytes about the various strategies and strategists who've been behind the legal and political movement for marriage equality. And he's right that these people were fierce advocates and visionaries who helped bring us to where we are today.

But, as usual, he leaves out anyone connected to the Human Rights Campaign.

In reality, Elizabeth Birch, the former president of HRC and the godmother of the organization's modern incarnation, is an enormously pivotal figure for LGBT equality and marriage equality. (Full disclosure: I was VP of Communications and Marketing at HRC from 2004 to 2006, though I never worked under Birch.)

Birch came to HRC in 1995 from Apple Computers with a head for marketing. She figured out that the LGBT movement wasn't going to be won by lobbyists trying to convince senators to get decades ahead of their constituents on a divisive social issue or trying to move courts packed with center-right judges who likely didn't know anyone openly LGBT.

She knew that the key to moving forward politically on LGBT issues was moving the American people forward. So she poured enormous resources into two places: the LGBT community itself and the workplace.

To build a movement of Americans on the side of LGBT equality, she led the creation of a slick logo built on a carefully calibrated message about equality. That logo, which could easily sit alongside the Nike swoosh, the golden arches or those mouse ears, gave millions of LGBT Americans a comfortable, mainstream way to express themselves and be out to their friends and family.

With the logo as a calling card, HRC built a membership base of hundreds of thousands who have been called upon to lobby, take action and help move the bar in their home states, neighborhoods and workplaces.

Sullivan might brush off logos and membership cards as nothing more than fluff, but that would betray the fact that branding, logos and marketing simply work.

Birch also recognized that to move straight Americans to the side of LGBT equality, they needed to know our authentic selves. Given that the workplace is the one place where adult strangers from different backgrounds form relationships, she knew that if LGBT people were comfortable being out at work, straight people would get to know us and support equality like never before.

She and her team created the Corporate Equality Index, a mammoth project that annually graded (and thus coaxed) corporations on their LGBT employment policies. It's never been glamorous or particularly cathartic work, with HRC staffers traveling from HR department to HR department across the country for more than a decade.

In 2002, the first year of the CEI, just 13 businesses earned a 100-percent rating. Today more than 300 do. As a result, millions of LGBT people can be out at work, bringing their girlfriends to office holiday parties and putting photos of their boyfriends on their desks.

They ended stereotypes, and that's part of how we've won the hearts and minds of the American people for LGBT equality. That cultural shift paved the way for HRC's own lobbyists and other advocates to move the ball forward on marriage equality and other issues.

Not all of Sullivan's gripes about HRC are misplaced, though. To some extent, HRC is a big, D.C.-insider institution. And like all big D.C.-insider institutions, there's an emphasis on fundraising, an element of self-preservation and cozy relationships with allies in Congress and the White House.

These big organizations play as much of a role as do state groups, single issue-focused advocates and more confrontational activists.

Sullivan is entitled to push HRC in places where it needs a push. But he's no more entitled to write off HRC's contributions to LGBT history as Becker is entitled to write off the contributions of thousands of marriage equality leaders over the decades.

Obama To Visit Site Of Washington State Mudslide

Huffingon Post Politics - Mon, 2014-04-21 19:07

WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - The White House said President Barack Obama is due to meet with the families of victims of a deadly mudslide in Washington State on Tuesday afternoon before leaving for a four-country tour of Asia.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office said on Monday that 41 victims have been recovered from the slide that buried a river valley neighborhood in the Cascade mountain foothills last month.

A rain-soaked hillside collapsed above the north fork of the Stillaguamish River on March 22, unleashing a torrent of mud that swallowed up a stretch of a state highway and some three dozen homes on the outskirts of the tiny community of Oso.

Obama is due to deliver remarks after meeting with families of victims, emergency workers, and others involved in the recovery effort. The president signed an emergency declaration ordering U.S. government assistance to supplement state and local relief efforts in the aftermath of the mudslide and flooding.

Obama is due to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Philippines over the next eight days. (Reporting By Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Bernard Orr)

Apple gives us a glimpse of their environmental efforts for Earth Day

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Mon, 2014-04-21 14:46
The company is reaffirming its commitment to being more environmentally-friendly. Based on the data, it's not just fluff, they've made real progress, though they still have lots to do...

Pistachio shells to heat Turkish city

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Mon, 2014-04-21 08:36
A new "eco-city" being planned for Turkey will use waste pistachio shells for heating public and private buildings.

Lawmakers Call For Tighter Sanctions On Russia

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 23:46
WASHINGTON (AP) — Two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called Sunday for beefing up western sanctions against Russia to include its petrochemical and banking industries and warned that Moscow thus far has ignored United States and European efforts to persuade it to back off its confrontation with Ukraine.

"We've helped in many ways to create the problems that exist there. And to leave them alone in the manner that we're leaving them alone to me is just unconscionable," Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee's senior Republican member, said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I don't think Putin really believes we're going to punish them in that way," he said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the same committee, said, "I think the time is now to rapidly ratchet up our sanctions, whether it's on Russian petrochemical companies or on Russian banks."

"If Russia does get away with this, I do think that there's a potential that a NATO ally is next. And, yes, there will be economic pain to Europe (under tightened sanctions). But it's time for them to lead as well."

President Barack Obama has said his administration is prepared to take further action against Russia if diplomatic efforts to destabilize the conflict fail.

Vice President Joe Biden is flying to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on Monday. Biden's office announced Sunday night that he would meet Tuesday with Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian prime minister and president, and legislators from the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. Biden also plans to meet with democracy activists before returning to Washington Tuesday night.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week that the U.S. is looking for ways to reassure its NATO allies of its strong commitment to collective defense. The Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, has said that American officials are considering a range of additional measures to bolster air, maritime and ground readiness in Europe.

Corker, who plans to be in the region in May, said unless the Russians "immediately begin moving the 40,000 troops on the border which are intimidating people in Ukraine, unless they begin immediately moving them away, I really do believe we should be sanctioning some of the companies in the energy sector, Gazprom and others. I think we should hit some of the large banks there."

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said that an international agreement forged late last week designed to ease tensions in Ukraine may be "the best chance that we have got to achieve a diplomatic de-escalation of this crisis. And we're working hard at it."

He told CNN's "State of the Union" that "there are obviously some real challenges at this point," including a fresh outbreak of violence earlier Sunday in eastern Ukraine.

"But we also believe that there has been some progress. I'm seeing reports this morning that at least one of these government buildings now has a Ukrainian flag flying over it," Pyatt said.

Snowden’s Camp: Staged Putin Q&A Was A Screw-Up - The Daily Beast

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 22:33
Even the NSA leaker’s closest advisers now say his appearance on a Kremlin call-in show, which touched off yet another international firestorm, was a mistake.

Forget the Spin, Putin Is Holding a Losing Hand

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 21:53
According to the Sunday Times, Barack Obama has had it with trying to build a partnership with Vladimir Putin. Like George W. Bush before him, Barack Obama has finally written off Vladimir Putin. There will be no reset of relations. Instead, his administration's focus will be "cutting off [Russia's] economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state."

In the same story, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, expresses his disgust. "They're playing us. We continue to watch what they're doing and try to respond to that. But it seems that in doing so, we create a policy that's always a day late and a dollar short."

To a degree unmatched since the early days of the Global War on Terror, American pundits and politicians have been marching in lockstep in response to Vladimir Putin's seizure of Crimea and continuing threats to Ukraine. On April 8th, as the Ukraine story continued to unfold, New York Times columnist and foreign affairs maven Tom Friedman summed up the commonly accepted narrative of Russian aggression and American passivity in his op-ed Playing Hockey with Putin:

Putin doesn't strike me as a chess player, in geopolitical terms. He prefers hockey, without a referee, so elbowing, tripping and cross-checking are all permitted. Never go to a hockey game with Putin and expect to play by the rules of touch football. The struggle over Ukraine is a hockey game, with no referee. If we're going to play -- we, the Europeans and the pro-Western Ukrainians need to be serious. If we're not, we need to tell the Ukrainians now: Cut the best deal with Putin that you can.

Friedman's colleague at the Times, David Herszenhorn, mirrored the President's frustration as he punctuated an article this week about a posting by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Facebook with an acrid derision that has become commonplace:

And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of the misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the political crisis in Ukraine that have emanated from the highest echelons of the Kremlin and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, American foreign policy icon George Kennan described circumstances like these. He suggested how a democracy "becomes victim of its own propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value which distorts its own vision ... Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side is the center of all virtue."

Kennan describes our susceptibility succinctly. Americans cling tightly to our image of ourselves as a beneficent, if flawed, people in a Manichean world of good guys and bad guys. We prefer not to know too much about the complexities and morally ambiguities of the world as it really is.

Lost in the 24-hour coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has been any attention to the historical context of these events. This should be the job of our leading newspapers, but even the headlines of these stories in the newspaper of record, Playing Hockey with Putin and Herzenhorn's Russia Is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine illustrate how shallow our reporting has become.

There is a backstory that suggests an alternative narrative. Indeed, it would be interesting to know what President Obama and his staff are really thinking as they assail Vladimir Putin for his barbaric behavior. Are they really appalled by Putin's conduct, as the reporting suggests, or do they understand it to be a predictable -- and predicted -- response to America's continuing strategy to undermine Russian power in the region? And is Bob Corker similarly flummoxed by Putin's strategic superiority, or does he share the sense of satisfaction that Zbigniew Brzezinski must feel as Putin flails away in frustration, as America's decades-long campaign to contain and undermine the Russian state continues to play out?

Zbigniew Brzezinski -- who first appeared in the public eye as President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor -- has in many respects been the inheritor of Henry Kissinger's mantle as the most influential member of the American foreign policy establishment. His life's work has been animated by his enduring hostility to the Russian state, and even as the pundits and politicians frame Ukraine as a failure of western diplomacy and strategy, one can see in it instead the success of the Brzezinski doctrine.

Brzezinski was one of the architects of the expansion of NATO in the wake of the end of the Cold War to include all of the former members of the Warsaw Pact. The expansion of NATO, with the ultimate goal of including Ukraine, was part of a strategy of exerting steadily increasing economic and political pressure on the Russian state. Brzezinski laid out his strategic perspective his 1998 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, and his ambitions to contain and ultimately break up the Russian state are summed up in his article A Geostrategy for Eurasia.

At the time that the NATO was expanded to bring in the former Warsaw Pact states, George Kennan expressed his belief that the aggressive expansion of NATO and a hostile policy of encirclement would backfire, and ultimately lead us to the point at which we have now arrived.

I think it is the beginning of a new cold war... I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.

But where Kennan saw increasing risks of confrontation, Brzezinski saw opportunity. Brzezinski's policy objective was the neutering of Russian ambitions and assuring American dominion in Eurasia. He did not give deference to Russia's historic paranoia as Kennan counseled, instead his strategy of continued pressure was designed to force Russian leaders to make choices between alternative courses of action, any of which would work to America's advantage.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 provides an example of Brzezinski's strategic approach. Back in 1980, we all knew that the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We knew this because Jimmy Carter told us so on national television, and his explanation went largely unchallenged in the media. And we all came to know that we began our support for the Islamist mujahedeen -- who would ultimately defeat the Red Army -- in response to the Soviet invasion. We know this because we saw Charlie Wilson's War. And that rendering of history has largely gone unchallenged in the media.

Only years later did we learn that Jimmy Carter signed the covert action directive initiating support for the Afghan mujahedeen on July 3, 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion. When the Red Army invaded, the Soviet leadership claimed that they were entering Afghanistan to defend the existing Afghan government against a covert war initiated by the United States. The Carter administration adamantly denied the Soviet claims, and the Soviet complaints were ridiculed in the national media -- like Medvedev's words this week -- as nothing more than self-serving propaganda. Of course we had to respond to Soviet aggression, suggested Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, "We had no choice."

Except, as it turns out, it would appear that the Soviet claims were true.

On the day that Carter approved the CIA intervention, National Security Advisor Brzezinski wrote to the President, "This is our chance to give Russia its Vietnam." Or, as he explained in a 1998 interview, U.S. action in Afghanistan was designed to lure the Red Army into a war that would bleed the Soviet Union. At worst, if the Soviets didn't take the bait, the strategy still offered the prospect of overthrowing the Afghan Communist regime:

According to the official version of the story, the CIA began to assist mujahedeen in the year 1980, that is, after the invasion of the Soviet army against Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the truth that remained secret until today is quite different: it was on July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed his first order on the secret assistance to Kabul's pro-Soviet regime opponents. That day I wrote a memorandum to the President in which I told him that that assistance would cause the Soviet intervention (...) [W]e did not force the Russian intervention, we just, conscientiously, increase the intervention possibilities."

In subsequent years, Jimmy Carter asserted that it was definitely "not his intention" to provoke the Soviet invasion, and perhaps one can take Jimmy Carter's impassioned outrage at the Soviet invasion at face value. But it is now a matter of historical record that his covert action directive in mid-1979 was undertaken -- at least in the view of his National Security Advisor -- with an eye toward provoking the Soviets to respond as they did.

The fingerprints of the Brzezinski approach are evident in Ukraine today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union -- after that brief moment of white shoe naiveté when George H.W. Bush and James Baker gave Mikhail Gorbachev their word that America would not push NATO "one inch" closer to the Russian border--our policy of encirclement was ratcheted up. Over the course of the decade following the Bush/Baker "commitment" to Gorbachev, all of the Warsaw Pact countries were brought into NATO, and American military facilities were developed in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakstan. By the time the dust settled, America had formed a ring of military facilities around the western and southern perimeter of the Russian landmass--from the Baltic Sea to the Chinese border, with the exception of Iran--abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and installed a forward deployed "missile defense" system.

The post-Cold War strategy of encirclement was more aggressive in design than simple containment. America's goal, in Brzezinski's words, was to "shape a political context that is congenial to Russia's assimilation into a larger framework of European cooperation." That is to say, Russia would be pushed toward the right choice -- democratization and decentralization -- and pay a price if it chose poorly. It mirrored Jimmy Carter's covert action in Afghanistan, in that it anticipated the different ways the Russians might respond. On the one hand, steadily tightening a military noose around Russia -- ultimately to include Ukraine and Georgia -- would constrain its imperial ambitions, the integration of democracies along the Russian periphery into the European community would push Russia toward political and economic reform. On the other hand, should Russia ultimately push back against the West's broken commitments and military encirclement -- as George Kennan predicted -- it would demonstrate to the world that Russia continued to harbor imperial ambitions and remained a threat to the rest of the world, justifying punitive measures to further isolate Russia economically and politically. It was a win-win strategy: Either outcome would serve America's interests in the region.

In 2008, Vladimir Putin finally pushed back. The Russia-Georgia War was the precursor to Putin's actions in Ukraine, as it demonstrated that he was serious about opposing continued encroachment on Russia's "near-abroad." At that moment, even as Georgia's ambitions for closer ties with the West were thwarted, international opinion turned against Russia, just as Brzezinski envisioned. Whatever one might have thought of Putin before the Georgia war, through his actions, in the eyes of the West, he revealed his true colors. He was an unrepentant KGB-bred spook, an emerging despot, a Russian nationalist, and a threat.

Writing in support of Putin's actions in the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, Mikhail Gorbachev expressed his frustration with the manipulation of Russia by the United States and in his anger at American duplicity:

Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here's the independence of Kosovo for you. Here's the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here's the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev mirrored Gorbachev frustration in an interview in Der Spiegel the following year.

After the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, we were hoping for a higher degree of integration. But what have we received? None of the things that we were assured, namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration. NATO remains a military bloc whose missiles are pointed towards Russian territory.

This was the backstory to Ukraine today, but little of that history has been explored in the media as events in Ukraine have unfolded. In advancing the commonly accepted narrative, Tom Friedman, David Herzenhorn and their compatriots have ignored not only that history, but more specifically the long term American strategy, that has been at work. Putin might be playing hockey, as Friedman suggests, but Brzezinski owns the team.

To those who embrace Brzezinski's strategic perspective, Putin's aggressive actions will only undermine his and Russia's credibility in the world. The impact on the lives of Ukrainians in Kiev and Kharkov and Odessa is not the point, Brzezinski's strategic formulation is designed to enhance American power in the region in the long term, and whether Putin finds a way to pull back or chooses to invade is immaterial. Either choice Putin makes, in Brzezinski's long view, will ultimately serve America's interests, even if a Ukrainian civil war and an energy crisis in Europe have to be part of the price along the way.

My point here is not to assess America's foreign policies in the world or to embrace Brzezinski's approach. One can believe Jimmy Carter's intervention in Afghanistan was good or bad, that it was effective realism or unwarranted intervention. One can believe promoting Ukrainian democracy and undermining Russia's security is a good policy or an unwarranted and dangerous one. But one cannot as Friedman suggests, and the media has trumpeted from the outset, simply raise one's voice in outrage, and express shock at Russia's "incredible acts of aggression."

Despite the talk of partnership, the fact is that the United States has consistently pursued aggressive and hostile policies designed to contain Russia, and -- if Brzezinski has his way -- ultimately see Russia broken up into a confederation of smaller states. Yet, by and large, the American media has bought into the dominant narrative, and ignored the deeper strategy at play. America's core strategy remains intact, and from the Brzezinski perspective everything is on track. Vladimir Putin has not been the master strategist of the media's imagination, the puppetmaster who has outfoxed American at every turn. Instead, he has long been caught in a trap, his actions manipulated in a game of power and strategy that goes back decades and in which he is playing a role, not writing the script.

Boston Prepares For Marathon With Festivities And Tight Security

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 21:44
BOSTON (AP) — In many ways, it felt like any other pre-marathon Sunday in Boston.

Families celebrated Easter, diners enjoyed the spring weather at sidewalk cafes, and runners — easily identified by their trim builds and colorful jackets — picked up last-minute supplies for what will be the second-largest field in the history of the Boston Marathon. But even as runners focused on the exhilaration of crossing the finish line, the festive atmosphere was inevitably tinged with sorrow, as runners, family members and spectators recalled the twin bombings at last year's race that killed three people and injured 260.

Marathon runners were blessed at an emotional church service that celebrated Easter and remembered the victims, while heightened security measures, including bag checks, were in place at marathon events.

"It's different, coming back," said Gisele Goldstein, 55, of Germantown, Tenn., who planned to run her 12th Boston Marathon this year. "It's not just me_there's a sadness."

At City Hall, a fast-moving line of several hundred runners and their families stretched around the building, where race organizers served a pre-race pasta dinner.

"So many of us are running this year because of that day," said Justin Jackson, 32, of Chicago.

Preparing for Monday's race has been emotional, he said. While it had not initially occurred to him to be nervous about another terrorist attack, a bomb scare on Tuesday night "regenerated the worry that there might be crazy people out there."

There have been other tense moments — such as when an alarm went off on Friday, during the Runners' Expo at the Hynes Convention Center. People were spooked, Goldstein said, even though it turned out to have been a test.

But runner Susan Campbell, 41, of Waverley, Nova Scotia, said she felt completely safe returning to Boston this year.

"What are the chances of it happening again?" said her husband, Andy Legere, 41, who was planning to cheer her on near the finish line, along with their two daughters.

"I never had any doubts about coming back," Campbell said. Still, she felt a weight this year when she collected her bib near the finish line. "It was a little sad, walking up Boylston Street and remembering."

Ricardo Corral, 53, of New York, who planned to race in the hand-cycle division of the wheelchair race on Monday_his eighth marathon_said he was reassured by the heightened security.

"We are not nervous," he said. "We know the police will be here to protect people."

Corral added that it was especially important to him and his teammates to return this year, to support Boston and each other. "As the signs say, 'Boston Strong,'" he said. "That's why we come back."

That determination was echoed by many runners, including Scott Johnson, 54, of Atlanta.

"There's a sense of resiliency," said Johnson, executive director of the Scott Rigsby Foundation, a nonprofit that supports people who have lost limbs and has raised money for last year's bombing victims.

"It's sadness, but it's also a kind of fortitude. Two people created the violence, but millions counter it with love and support. I like those odds!"

Ben Rancourt, 64, of Ste-Germaine, Quebec, was planning to run his eighth Boston Marathon along with his three younger brothers.

"We're going to buy beer for the after party!" he said. "We'll see, tomorrow, with the fans on both sides of the road_it will feel very great!"

Can Democrats Go Long?

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 21:39

For more than 30 years, the right has been throwing long passes. The Democrats, with some fine individual exceptions in the Senate and House, have been playing an incremental game, eking out gains of a few yards at a time and often being thrown for big losses.



Guess which side has been winning.



Four decades ago, supply side economics was a joke. The idea that cutting taxes on the very rich was the key to prosperity had been laughed out of the debate as "trickle down economics." Now low taxes on the rich -- even the dead rich -- are national policy.



Forty years ago, Richard Nixon was fighting mostly on territory defined by Democrats. He had a universal health proposal somewhat to the left of the Affordable Care Act. Nixon was even for a guaranteed annual income, and that was before Watergate.



In the 1970s, both parties were environmentalist. Epic laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were approved with large, bipartisan majorities. Now, regulation is a dirty word.



Meanwhile, Democrats have made nice incremental progress on laws like the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy to industry that allows corporations to pay their workers less and have government make up the difference) while the distribution of wage and salary income becomes steadily more unequal.



The Office of Management and Budget, under a Democratic president, waters down environmental regulations even before the Republican House of Representatives adds further obstacles.



The Democrats have made incremental gains at insuring more people, as the entire health system is so dominated by commercial players that it is becoming generally unaffordable, and more and more people are under-insured.



We've reformed a corrupted financial system with millions of pages of Dodd-Frank regulations to the point where the very complexity invites more corruption. Meanwhile, high-frequency traders and hedge fund operators are taking more and more of the total investment gains at the expense of regular people.



So why not take a leaf from the right's playbook. Why not say what we're really for, and have a long-term plan to lead public opinion there?



How about giving the financial system the drastic simplification that it deserves. No high frequency trading (which adds nothing except profits to insiders). No hedge funds exempt from the usual disclosure rules. No mega-banks that add only risk to the rest of the system?



How about national health insurance, pure and simple?



How about a minimum wage that's a true living wage?



How about a massive public investment program in deferred infrastructure and a green transition, to provide good domestic jobs along the way?



How about a "universal, portable pension" -- not the small-bore savings incentives offered by centrist policy wonks but an easy-to-grasp general expansion of Social Security.



How about planting a flag?



I know, I know, Congress won't vote for this stuff. But Congress isn't voting for the small-bore stuff either.



At first, Congress did not vote for the policies the right was offering, but the right kept pounding away. They eventually managed to get policies enacted and ideologies entrenched that harm most people.



Progressives, by contrast, begin with one big advantage. Public opinion is mostly on our side.



The voters actually support Medicare for All, and expanded Social Security, and higher minimum wages, controls on Wall Street, higher taxes on millionaires, and increased investment in infrastructure. It's only elites who oppose them. How about leadership that validates what voters want?



It's a thankless task for Democrats to run and govern as centrists. The policies do not solve large national problems. Voters see only more bureaucracy, and voters give up on politics.



Who, after all, promotes "third way" policies? Financial elites wearing their Democrat hat, that's who. It's a great strategy for neutering the people's party and scaring away voters.



Look at progressive causes that actually won big -- LGBT rights, disability rights, equal treatment in the workplace for women. They did not begin by asking for meager incremental gains. They began by making demands far outside the mainstream, and changing the mainstream.



So let's say what we're really for, and bring public opinion to it. It may take a decade or two. It may require a genuine progressive to get nominated for president, backed by a mass movement.



But if Democrats stick to the course they are on, they are likely to lose both the politics and the policies. It would be liberating, and energizing, to plant that flag.



Robert Kuttner's latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.



Like Robert Kuttner on Facebook. Follow Robert Kuttner on Twitter.

Joe Biden To Meet Ukraine President, Prime Minister In Kiev

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 20:05

WASHINGTON, April 20 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will meet with Ukraine's acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk during a visit to Kiev on Tuesday, the White House said on Sunday.

Biden arrives in Kiev on Monday afternoon local time. He will meet with members of Ukraine's Rada parliament from different political parties and regions as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations during his two-day stay, the White House said in a statement.

In those meetings, Biden will "discuss the international community's efforts to help stabilize and strengthen Ukraine's economy and to assist Ukraine in moving forward on constitutional reform, decentralization, anti-corruption efforts, and free and fair presidential elections on May 25th," the statement said.

"The vice president will also consult on the latest developments in eastern Ukraine and on steps to enhance Ukraine's short- and long-term energy security."

Early on Sunday, at least three people were killed in a gunfight near an eastern Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, shaking an already fragile international accord that was designed to avert a wider conflict.

The incident triggered a war of words between Moscow and Ukraine's Western-backed government, with each questioning the other's compliance with the agreement, brokered last week in Geneva, to end a crisis that has strained Russia's ties with the West.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Writing Off Putin

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 16:54
The White House may be signaling a new approach to its standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The headline in Sunday's New York Times reads, "In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin." While such a strategy may not address short-term issues, it may be the best approach in the long-term.

President Putin's ultimate ambitions are not known, though it is clear he is using the seizure of Crimea and threats against Ukraine in part to strengthen his position at home. Russia's economy is struggling, and government is riddled with corruption and cronyism. Human rights abuses abound in Russia, as does suppression of free speech. Russia has slowly been slipping in relevance on the world stage.

President Obama has had great difficulty getting European support for crippling sanctions against Russia. The problem is that many European countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil resources. And many global banks and businesses do not favor harsh tactics.

The challenge to reining in Putin is complicated further by Russia's role in difficult negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. American troops and equipment are also passing through Russia to Afghanistan.

President Obama and President Putin have spoken by phone several times since the crisis in Ukraine began earlier this year. The American and Russian accounts of those conversations vary widely, but they agree that no real progress was achieved.

Last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine and European diplomats. The agreement calls for pro-Russian gangs to give up the government buildings they seized and lists other steps to de-escalate the crisis. President Obama greeted the agreement with skepticism last Thursday, and pro-Russian groups continue to occupy the buildings. Meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 Russian troops remain in place just across Ukraine's eastern border.

President Obama and European allies have identified additional sanctions that can be imposed on Russia. And there are reports that the Pentagon is planning on expanding NATO's presence in Eastern Europe by deploying troops and fighter jets into Poland. Nonetheless, President Obama has ruled out going to war over Ukraine.

While the administration debates its long-term plans with Russia, The New York Times reports that there is a debate within the administration over how far to go in the short-term. Conservatives have been critical of the president's tactics for not being strong enough. But the president is focused on isolating Putin with sanctions and other forms of pressure. According to the Times, he has concluded, even if there is a resolution to the current Ukrainian crisis, "he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin," according to aides.

Given Russia's weak economy, President Putin cannot easily take on the additional costs of annexing Eastern Ukraine. Military intervention would be difficult and costly for Russia. Further, Putin has already cast himself, by his actions to date, as an unreliable partner to much of Europe.

Putin is a bully who cannot be ignored. But President Obama and Western allies are on the correct course by continuing to tighten sanctions and by applying other meaningful steps to isolate Putin. In time, even Putin's own people will likely tire of his act.

GOP Campaign Committee Has $31 Million To Help Hold On To The House

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 16:00

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Republican campaign committee raised almost $10 million in March and has $31.2 million banked to defend the party's majority, according to financial reports filed Sunday.


The National Republican Congressional Committee's $21.2 million fundraising haul in January, February and March gave the group its best first-quarter showing since 2003. It also puts the committee roughly $8 million ahead of its fundraising at this point in 2012.


Still, the GOP committee faces a well-funded challenge from House Democrats, who amassed a $40 million fund.


Those fundraising updates — like dozens of others due by midnight Sunday — suggest that donors are starting to open their wallets for groups willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on federal races from coast to coast. The fundraising was fast approaching the $1 billion mark, fueled by donors on each side writing checks to committees and organizations in a show of just how politically divided the United States remains.


"This outstanding fundraising effort will enable the NRCC to stay on offense against House Democrats who continue to support Obamacare and failed leadership of (House Democratic leader) Nancy Pelosi," committee executive director Liesl Hickey said.


The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $10.3 million in March despite deep skepticism that Republicans can lose their majority in November. Its $40 million in savings puts it atop the fundraising contest among party-directed campaign committees and outpaced most three-month fundraising tallies released thus far from super political action committees, which can accept unlimited donations. Donations to party-run campaign committee are capped at $32,400.


"Our incredible grassroots supporters are shattering records as they fight against this Republican Congress' agenda that stacks the deck for special interests at the expense of the middle class," committee executive director Kelly Ward said Sunday.


Republicans outnumber Democrats by 34 seats in the 435-member House and there are three vacancies. Democrats face a steep climb to reclaim control for the first time since tea party-aligned candidates helped put the GOP back in power after the 2010 elections.


Democrats also had an advantage with their Senate committee. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reported raising $8.1 million in March and saved $22 million. The National Republican Senatorial Committee reported raising almost $6.4 million in March and saving $15.9 million.


Republicans need to pick up six seats in win the majority in the Senate.


At the central committees, Republicans had an edge. The Republican National Committee reported raising $10.2 million last month and banking $12 million. The Democratic National Committee raised $10.3 million last month and had $9.8 million in the bank.


The DNC also remains laden in debt: $14.1 million, to be exact.


Heading into Sunday's filing deadline for groups that disclosure their finances every month, Democrats appeared to be raising more cash than Republicans.


Among outside groups, Democrats enjoyed a more than 2-to-1 margin.


But some of the Republicans' most visible allies reported strong fundraising numbers. For instance, the Senate Conservatives Fund raised almost $2 million during the first three months of 2014. The group, which often challenges GOP leaders' preferred candidates, has raised almost $9.7 million so far this cycle and has spent $9.4 million, according to filings ahead of Sunday's midnight deadline.


The Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads super PAC raised more cash in March than it did during the previous 14 months combined, but it relied on just a handful of donors. The group in March resumed fundraising after a one-year hiatus and raised almost $5.2 million last month and reported it had more than $6.3 million in the bank.


Its donors? Three corporations and 21 individuals. The average donation was more than $218,000.


The largest donation — $2 million — came from former Univision owner Jerry Perenchio. A trust tied to Oklahoma coal executive Joseph Craft III gave $500,000, as did Arkansas-based investment manager Warren Stephens and Kentucky-based self-storage mogul B. Wayne Hughes.


Among groups that reliably support Democrats, the Service Employees International Union's Committee on Political Education raised another $1.2 million from union members' voluntary donations during March. The committee has raised $22.8 million so far this cycle and has $16.4 million in the bank.


At party-run committees, just $22 million separated Democrats from Republicans — out of the $503 million the six major campaign committees have raised combined.


All told, Democrats' outside groups and committees had about a 30 percent advantage over what Republicans had reported, although GOP groups such as Americans for Prosperity operate under rules that let them delay reporting.


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Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/philip_elliott

420 Gaining Popularity In Mainstream Culture

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 15:46
DENVER (AP) -- Once the province of activists and stoners, the traditional pot holiday of April 20 has gone mainstream in the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana.

Tens of thousands gathered for a weekend of Colorado cannabis-themed festivals and entertainment, from a marijuana industry expo called the Cannabis Cup at a trade center north of downtown, to 4/20-themed concerts at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater -- acts include Slightly Stoopid and Snoop Dogg -- to a massive festival in the shadow of the state capitol where clouds of cannabis smoke are expected to waft at 4:20 p.m. MDT Sunday. The festival in Denver's Civic Center Park is the most visible sign of the transformation. It started as a defiant gathering of marijuana activists, but this year the event has an official city permit, is organized by an events management company and featured booths selling funnel cakes and Greek food next to kiosks hawking hemp lollipops and glass pipes.

Gavin Beldt, one of the organizers, said in a statement that the event is now a "celebration of legal status for its use in Colorado and our launch of an exciting new experience for those attending. "

Denver is just one of many cities across the country where 4/20 marijuana celebrations are planned Sunday. Elsewhere, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said his officers would be cracking down on illegal parking, camping, drug sales, underage drinking and open alcohol containers at Golden Gate Park's Hippie Hill. Officials don't want the unofficial pot holiday to disrupt Easter Sunday activities in the park

On Saturday, the first day of a two-day festival in Denver, only a few people lingered on the steps of a Roman-style amphitheater where marijuana activists spoke angrily about bans on the drug in other states. Thousands instead lingered on the park's broad lawns, listening to hip-hop music blasting from the sound stage and enjoying the fresh, albeit marijuana-scented, air.

"It's a lot mellower this year," said Cody Andrews, 29, of Denver. "It's more of a venue now. More vendor-y."

Last year's event was marred by an unsolved shooting that wounded three. This year a fence rings the park. Security guards in protective gear roam the grounds, and all entrants are being checked for weapons.

Earlier this year, there was tension when some organizers wanted to officially sanction a 4:20 p.m. Sunday smokeout, but the city noted that public consumption of marijuana is still illegal in Colorado. By Saturday night, Denver police said they had issued at least 17 citations for public pot smoking.

Still, participants expect to light up on Sunday, which happens to also be Easter Sunday. Plenty weren't waiting until 4/20 proper. On Saturday, Jairin Genung, 25, of Aurora, sat on the grass with friends, including one who was carefully rolling a thick joint.

"We're going to light up no matter what," Genung said. "If you can't smoke at the 4/20 rally, it just doesn't make sense."

The whole scene was wonderfully surreal for Bud Long, 49, from Kalamazoo, Mich., who recalled taking part in his first 4/20 protest in 1984.

"Nationwide, it'll be decriminalized," he predicted, "and we'll be doing this in every state."

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Associated Press writer Terry Chea in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NickRiccardi .

Washington, Colorado 4/20 Celebrations Draw Thousands

Huffingon Post Politics - Sun, 2014-04-20 14:57

(Updates throughout with latest citation numbers; adds details from Seattle event, byline)

By Keith Coffman and Bryan Cohen

April 20 (Reuters) - Thousands of marijuana enthusiasts gathered in Colorado and Washington state over the weekend for an annual celebration of cannabis culture with rallies, concerts and trade shows in the first two U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana.

Voters in both Western states approved ballot initiatives in 2012 allowing personal possession and use of marijuana by anyone aged 21 and or older for purposes of just getting high, though public consumption of pot remains illegal.

In January the world's first state-licensed retail marijuana outlets opened for business in Colorado, and stores in Washington are set to follow suit later this year. Both states are among 20 that have already removed criminal sanctions for medical use of marijuana.

The federal government still classifies marijuana as an illegal narcotic, but the Obama administration has given states new leeway to experiment with legalized cannabis.

In Denver's Civic Center Park near the state capitol, revelers on Sunday gathered to hear music and listened to speakers during a weekend event that organizers billed as the "world's largest 4/20 rally."

The date of April 20, or 4/20, corresponds to the numerical code widely recognized within the cannabis subculture as a symbol for all things marijuana.

Police officers standing by on the fringes of the Denver festival issued 63 citations on Sunday, most for smoking pot in public - a ticket that carries a fine of $150. About half as many were cited on Saturday, police said.

At least eight individuals were taken to a detoxification facility for treatment during the two days, police said.

Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said officers have refrained from wading into the crowd to arrest violators, but instead were citing people who openly defied the public consumption ban.

"Those ticketed were blatantly in violation of state law and city ordinances," Jackson said.

Organizers of the rally and city officials beefed up security at the event after three people were wounded by gunfire at last year's rally.

Separately, the Cannabis Cup, a trade show sponsored by High Times magazine, drew sold-out crowds over the weekend at a Denver convention venue.

The two-day event featured marijuana sampling and workshops, such as how to open a pot shop, cultivation tips, and how to talk to children about weed, according to the event's website.

Rachel O'Bryan, spokeswoman for Smart Colorado, an organization that advocates for stricter enforcement of marijuana laws, said the cannabis industry needs to do more to police its own.

"People are flouting the law by openly consuming," she said. "We're concerned about the message that sends to our kids."


CELEBRATING WITH BONGS AT A BREWERY

In Seattle, several hundred people who paid $15 a head crowded the cavernous interior of a former brewery where Rainier Beer was made for decades to attend a 4/20 gathering organized by sponsors of the city's annual Hempfest rally.

Reggae music played over loudspeakers and the air inside was thick with the sweet, skunky odor of cannabis. But no police were visible at the event, which organizers deliberately held on private space leased from the brewery owners in an industrial section of the city south of downtown.

The gathering featured a workshop on how to roll a joint with an entire ounce (28 grams) of marijuana - the legal limit for personal possession in the state - as well as vendors selling pipes and other paraphernalia, and a blind-toke test in which participants tried to distinguish between different strains of pot by sampling them. Attendees ranged from middle-aged baby boomers to a younger crowd from the so-called millennial generation.

A cheer from the crowd went up at precisely 4:20 p.m. local time, as many attendees milling about outside lit joints and pipes simultaneously, sending puffs of smoke into the air followed by raucous fits of coughing.

One woman in the crowd accepted a joint handed her from a bearded bystander.

"You look just like Jesus," she exclaimed in an apparent reference to the event coinciding with Easter Sunday. "How does it feel to be risen?"

Doug Medina, 54, said he traveled hundreds of miles with his wife and daughter from Billings, Montana, to Seattle for the 4/20 weekend celebrations there.

"It feels a little more open than it did five or 10 years ago," he said while smoking a joint outside the brewery. (Additional reporting by Bryan Cohen in Seattle; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Leslie Adler and Eric Walsh)