Religious Freedom or Religious Discrimination?

Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Act has been getting enormous press coverage the past few days. Gov-Mike-PenceThe act, signed into law this week by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, allows businesses in Indiana to discriminate against gays and others they object to on religious grounds.

The blowback has been swift and growing. The state now stands to lose millions of dollars with organizations threatening to cancel conventions and pull major sporting events. Some major corporations have said they will no longer invest in the State. It is very reminiscent of events last year when Jan Brewer was forced to veto similar legislation in Arizona.

Gov. Pence has argued that Indiana’s law is no different from that passed in 19 other states that are all based on a federal law signed by President Clinton in 1993. And many corporate media outlets have accepted his statement.

But Pence is not speaking the truth.

RNS-RFRAThe Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed in 1993 was designed to shield minority religions from government interference. Specifically, the law was crafted in response to a specific legal case (Employment Division v. Smith) that dealt with “whether two Native American workers could get unemployment insurance after they had been fired from their jobs for taking peyote in a religious ritual.” [See here for full details.]

In 1997 a portion of this act was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the Federal law was not binding on the operations of State governments. The Act was amended in 2003 to reflect this. Subsequently 19 States passes their own versions of the RFRA to entrench the federal law’s provisions within their own state laws.

While Gov. Pence may pretend that the Indiana law is no different than the laws passed in these other states, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana states that Indiana’s law is “virtually without precedent.”

It is important to note that the Federal law (as well as the laws of the other states cited) applies to individual persons and groups asserting their free exercise of religion in interacting with the government, The Indiana law is much more broadly written, allowing

for-profit businesses, employees and individuals—basically anyone—to assert a legal claim or defense of free exercise of religion in a legal proceeding, regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding. (emphasis added)

Garrett Epp summarizes the key differences to the Indiana law as follows in an article this week for The Atlantic:

[First,] the Indiana statute explicitly recognizes that a for-profit corporation has “free exercise” rights matching those of individuals or churches. …

Second, the Indiana statute explicitly makes a business’s “free exercise” right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person, rather than simply against actions brought by government.

gay-marriageHe explains that a major impetus for the new wave of “religious freedom” legislation has come as a result of a recent New Mexico court case in which a same-sex couple sued a professional photography studio that refused to photograph the couple’s wedding on religious grounds.

The photography studio claimed that New Mexico’s RFRA protected it from being sued for discrimination. The state’s Supreme Court, however, ruled that the state’s RFRA did not protect the defendant because the government was not a party to the suit.

The Indiana law ensures that businesses will be protected from similar discrimination suits by extending the protection beyond the limits of governmental agencies to include individuals and for-profit corporations.

Does this new law allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against whomever they wish at will? No. As Paul Waldman explains in an article this week in The Washington Post,

Indiana law on discrimination creates certain protected classes. You can’t discriminate against someone because of their race, their religion, their gender, and so on. But sexual orientation isn’t on that list … .

Many other states have language in their statutes that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Indiana does not. When the bill was before the state legislature,

Democrats also offered the Republican legislative majority a chance to amend the new act to say that it did not permit businesses to discriminate [on sexual orientation]; they voted that amendment down.

And that is what gives this legislation signed into law this week by Rep. Gov. Mike Pence all the trappings of an “anti-gay” law.

Gay wedding cakeAlthough much of the discussion so far has centered on seemingly minor issues like whether a photographer should have to shoot a same-sex wedding or whether a baker should be able to refuse to make a cake for a gay couple, Sam Baker, writing in the National Journal, notes that

[T]he potential reach is much greater. As more states adopt similar proposals … religious liberty could be used to defend discrimination in housing or by employers who object to providing same-sex spousal benefits.

On the heels of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Arkansas legislature approved an RFRA of its own that contained similar provisions to the Indiana law. Although Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson had earlier indicated that he would sign the bill, The Hill reports that he now appears to be “backing down amid a growing outcry over similar legislation in Indiana.” Hutchinson is quoted as saying,

“I am asking the Legislature to take a look at this bill, to recall it, or to provide me a changed bill that will make Arkansas [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] law mirror the federal law.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is also backtracking, vowing that the state will alter its RFRA, and calling on “lawmakers to pass legislation making it clear ‘that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone.’ ”

Religious freedom is a precious right, and should be vigilantly protected. But it must not be turned into a weapon to deny the basic rights of others.

That is a lesson that many are still struggling to learn.

Photo credits: Facebook/Governor Mike Pence; U.S. National Archives

ISIS and Islam

Controversy continues to mount over President Obama’s recent statements about ISIS and its relation to Islam. Briefly put, is ISIS an Islamic terrorist organization or not?

Obama - Summit speechThis week Obama hosted a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington with representatives from governments, civic groups and community leaders from over 60 countries attending. In his address to the Summit, and in a corresponding op-ed in the LA Times, Obama has been extremely careful to avoid any language that labels ISIS as an “Islamic group.”

Obama reiterated his stance, stated on previous occasions, that ISIS “is not Islamic.” ISIS and other terrorist groups are not practicing Islam, he claims, they are perverting it. In his address to the Summit Obama specifically stated that ISIS

is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

In his op-ed in the LA Times Obama went on to state that,

Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL promote a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims. The world must continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam.

It remains to be seen whether the President will be successful in getting his point across. There are many in America who loudly proclaim that Islam is a religion of violence, that it is inherently evil, that it is barbaric, and that Christians must oppose Islam as a matter of principle.

islam-intolerant-terrorist-religion21As the Center for American Progress has pointed out, since 2001 an active Islamophobia mill has been disseminating hateful misinformation on Islam. Its distortions and fabrications are picked up by the rightwing press, which passes on these views. They are repeated within conservative grassroots organizations and are broadly assumed to be true. Eventually these claims make their way into in statements by some politicians and religious leaders and receive extensive coverage.

In taking the tone that he has, Obama is trying to achieve two very difficult objectives. On the one hand he is attempting to undercut the wave of Islamophobia that is gaining ground in America. Referring to the three young Muslim Americans who were recently killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he said,

we know that many Muslim Americans across our country are worried and afraid. Americans of all faiths and backgrounds must continue to stand united with a community in mourning and insist that no one should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.

War on IslamOn the other hand Obama is trying to counter the message actively promoted by ISIS that Americans hate Muslims and that U.S. military actions in the Middle East demonstrates that “the United States is at war with Islam.” This assertion provides ISIS with its most powerful recruiting tool. America has to be seen as loudly proclaiming that this is a political conflict motivated by radical ideology and not a fight over opposing religious views.

As Max Fisher stated yesterday in a strongly worded editorial in Vox,

Part of the challenge is that, as president, [Obama] does not have the luxury of freely sharing his views. He has to consider the impact of his words, particularly in the context of an atmosphere in the US that is already primed for backlash against Muslims.

The fact is that the U.S. needs strong allies in the Middle East if it is to defeat ISIS. It cannot afford to offend them with language that is seen in any way to be negative toward Islam.

America also cannot win this conflict simply by going it alone, landing American troops on foreign soil (invading Middle Eastern countries yet again) and occupying this territory. That kind of response after 9/11 is what has led to the present crisis, with each opponent – from the Taliban, to al-Qaida, to ISIS – becoming more extreme in its response to what it portrays as “American aggression.”

ISIS-War-998x579Any ground invasion by American troops to fight against these Muslim “religious patriots” (as they portray themselves) will generate tens of thousands of fresh recruits for ISIS. It will also, no doubt, lead to sympathizers on American soil launching isolated attacks from within the U.S.

Obama knows that America cannot win this battle without the support of the Muslim nations within this region of conflict. America must therefore convincingly show that it is fighting with Muslims to defeat ISIS rather than against Muslims. That is paramount. But it is also not going to be easy.

Many Muslims around the world see the U.S. as more of a threat than an ally. One can point to the widespread carnage and devastating human toll from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. also helped depose the ruler of Libya and then stood by as that country descended into factional chaos. It has threatened to invade Syria and depose its leader. It is pressuring Iran. Relations have deteriorated in Egypt and are becoming strained with Saudi Arabia. Yet America needs the support of each of these countries if it is to constrain and ultimately defeat ISIS.

I am not for one instant suggesting that the U.S. should have supported Gaddafi in Libya or should currently support al-Assad in Syria, or should stop pressuring Iran to drop its nuclear program. But the U.S. also has to somehow find a way of working with those regimes to orchestrate the defeat of ISIS.

I agree with those who say that the hard fighting will need to be done by the local militias (e.g. the Kurds and ‘moderate’ Syrian factions). In responding to recent atrocities by ISIS against their own nationals, Jordan and Egypt will be more than willing to provide aerial support.

ISIS mass killingsISIS has alienated more and more governments in the region with its barbarous actions. It will eventually find itself surrounded, contained, and ultimately defeated by these forces. The U.S. can provide an assisting and even a coordinating role in this endeavor. But it cannot win the battle alone.

Of course, America cannot simply stand by and let others do the fighting. It, like Jordan and Egypt, now has its honor on the line. But how many Americans have been killed to date by ISIS? And how many Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, etc.? This is their battle even more than ours.

There are some (quite a few, actually) who want to make this primarily America’s fight. I understand their anger. But in my view, that is totally unrealistic. It displays the same hubris that led to the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. People did not welcome them as heroes and liberators. No one welcomes foreign troops on their own soil. The ground fighting is best left to those in the region.

Returning to the opening question of whether ISIS is an “Islamic” terrorist organization or not, we now come to the ultimate irony. As I have argued, it is absolutely necessary for political reasons to consistently claim that ISIS is an ideologically motivated terrorist group and not as some variant form of Islam.

The problem is, that the leaders of ISIS do see themselves as true Muslims – in fact, they see themselves as the only true Muslims. That is why they have persecuted and executed countless Muslims everywhere they have taken control. In ISIS one is dealing with a radical extremist religious group. But again, the U.S. simply cannot be seen as declaring war on Muslims – any Muslims. And so it must deliberately obscure this element of ISIS’ makeup.

I frankly doubt that Obama will be successful in convincing the public that ISIS is ideologically rather than religiously motivated. Yet he must try. And he must walk a careful line in doing so.

If one wants to gain a better understanding of the radical absolutist religious views of the ISIS leaders, I strongly recommend Graeme Wood’s lengthy essay published in The Atlantic this week. It is the best analysis that I have seen to date.

ISIS-prayer-640x400Wood’s article provides a very good overview of ISIS’ religious mindset, rigorous devotion, intolerance for any variant (apostate) forms of Islam (meaning all forms that are different from their own), its understanding of the revived caliphate, imposition of religious law, and perhaps most importantly, its apocalyptic views. The leaders of ISIS basically see themselves as the agents bringing about the fulfillment of end-time prophesies that will see the defeat of “Rome” (Christianity and Western civilization), the destruction of all apostate nations and peoples, and the establishment of puritanical Islam as the sole religion. It is a chilling portrayal.

One should note that Wood’s article has also been strongly criticized by some Islamic scholars as not sufficiently distinguishing between the radical literalist interpretation of the Qur’an promoted by ISIS and understanding of mainstream Muslim groups. As within any religion, there are many variations and beliefs. Wood unfortunately gives the impression that the ISIS leadership follows a faithful reading of the texts rather than a radical and starkly one-sided misreading that other Muslims the world over reject.

The literalistic application of these texts is precisely what the Christian Islamophobic critics point to when they claim that Islam is a religion of violence. Understanding that the vast majority of Muslims do not hold to this understanding of their scriptures is essential if one is to understand Islam as it is actually lived out in its various forms around the world.

For me personally, it demonstrates the dangers inherent in all forms of biblical literalism and fundamentalism – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. It alarms me that there are so many Christians (including prominent preachers) who seem take pleasure in noting how bad the world is getting because that means the end of the age is at hand. Christ, it is believed, will return to save his own, while billions will die horrible deaths in a massive conflagration that will destroy the planet.

Especially alarming to me is the message that we should do nothing to prevent the “wars and rumors of war” from escalating and that global annihilation is actually a good thing.

And should it turn out that this particular literalistic interpretation of scripture is wrong? That’s too horrible to contemplate.

It’s easy to recognize how Islamic fundamentalism poses an enormous threat to humanity. Can we recognize the ways in which Christian fundamentalism poses a similar threat?

I wonder.

Photo credit: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Islam – Religious Friend or Foe?

Barack ObamaPresident Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week seems to have generated a great deal of controversy in certain religious circles.

In his address, President Obama unequivocally condemned the actions of militant terrorist groups like ISIS who, he said, abuse the Islamic faith in justifying their agenda. At the same time he warned against the mistaken tendency of treating Islam as a uniquely violent religion.

Religious violence and campaigns of religious violence, he pointed out, take place all around the world and have done so for many centuries. No religion is exempt from this tendency and no religion is exempt from its own waves of religious violence and extremism. It is a problem, he said, that humanity has been grappling with throughout human history.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge – or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.

ISIS-IraqWe see ISIL [ISIS], a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism – terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

Christians too need to recognize that they are not immune from this path of religious violence and extremism. They have their own past (and present) to contend with. It is all too easy to think of one’s self as morally superior to others and of one’s religion as superior to all others as well. What is needed, Obama said, is a degree of religious humility, acknowledging that we are in no position to throw stones, since none of us is without sin.

[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

Unfortunately, these examples of atrocities committed by Christians in the name of religion are not limited to events of nine or even six centuries ago. As Obama noted in his speech,

In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

Christian Terrorists Too?

lynchingIn a very poignant essay written the day after ISIS executed the Jordanian pilot by dousing him with gasoline and burning him alive in a cage, Bill Moyers drew a connection between ISIS’ “fiery cage” and the KKK’s “lynching tree.” Both were used to broadcast horrifying displays of religious violence and to terrorize the general public. Nor were these horrendous actions limited to a few isolated cases. As Moyers notes,

Between 1882 and 1968 — 1968! — there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US.

Such religious atrocities in Christian lands are not a thing of the past. They continue on today. As Jack Jenkins reported in ThinkProgress,

Lords-Resistance-Armyin central Africa, the Lord’s Resistance Army (which, similar to ISIS, seeks to establish a theocratic state based on the Ten Commandments) forcibly recruits child soldiers, terrorizes local villages, and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people in Uganda and the displacement of 1.7 million in the greater region, according to the United Nations.

Individuals also carry out acts of terrorism in the name of religion.

In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-professed Christian, launched a horrific assault in Oslo, Norway to defend “Christian Europe,” using an arsenal of weapons to kill 77 people — most of whom were teenagers.

Jenkins also recounts how last year, motivated by the writings of a Christian white supremacist organization,

suspected Christian terrorist Larry McQuilliams mounted a full-scale attack on Austin, Texas, firing off more than 100 shots in the city before embarking on a botched attempt to burn down the Mexican Consulate.

But should we really be calling these individuals “Christians”? Should we call the Lord’s Resistance Army a Christian militia and the KKK a Christian organization? Doesn’t that strike most Christians as offensive? And here we get to the real nub of the issue.

President Obama has been criticized for refusing to use the words “Islamic terrorists” in referring to ISIS and other groups. This and a host of related terms like “Muslim extremists,” “radical Islam,” and “Muslim militants” are all problematic for one specific reason – these terms infer that these people actually represent the religion of Islam and, in carrying out their acts, are operating as Muslims.

Such a statement by any head of government would be seen as highly defamatory and offensive within the Muslim world. It is no wonder that Obama is careful to avoid such language.

ISIS fightersPresident Obama has been consistently clear on this point. Last September, on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11 he stated in an address to the nation that ISIL, or ISIS, which now calls itself the Islamic State, “is not Islamic.” Nor is it even a state. Instead,

ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

As Aaron Blake noted at that time in the Washington Post,

Throughout his presidency, President Obama has emphasized one point while talking about Islamist extremists: They are not practicing Islam, he has said, they are perverting it.

Muslims for Peace

Millions of Muslims around the world take the same position. They have strongly denounced the actions of ISIS as unIslamic. As Jenkins points out in another article,

the false presupposition … — that most Muslims either remain silent in the face of religious extremism or, worse, condone it — is one that shows up time and time again in conservative circles, but ignores the important efforts of millions of peaceful Muslims.

Islam is peaceHe notes that many individual Muslims and Muslim organizations have

repeatedly and passionately condemned acts of violence perpetrated by people who claim to be followers of Islam.

And he asks us to reflect on the fact that since the year 2000 no less than five Muslims have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their religiously motivated commitments to peacemaking.

Mind you, there are plenty of Christians around (some with large attentive audiences) who continue to claim that Islam is fundamentally a religion of violence. For example, Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) has called Islam “a religion of war.” And Brian Fischer, until recently the spokesperson for the American Family Association, has written that, “Islam is an evil and wicked religion.”

quranstandSuch people can point to isolated verses from the Qur’an taken out of context such as, “Strike terror into God’s enemies, and your enemies” (Qur 8.60), and “… slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.” (Qur. 9.5)

bible_open_newBut they ignore the passages in Jewish and Christian scripture that show God commanding genocide (Deut. 20:16-18), approving military annihilation (Josh. 10:40), supporting honor killings (Lev. 21-9), condoning slavery (too many passages to number), and commending the slaughter of children (Ps. 137:9).

In fact, as Philip Jenkins wrote some time ago in his excellent article entitled “Dark Passages,”

The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. … If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery.

Most Christians would immediately say, hold on a minute. These biblical passages condoning such barbaric acts describe a far different time and culture. No Christian would treat them as being normative in today’s world. Christianity is about something completely different. It preaches a message of love, compassion, and acceptance of other people. These, not war and violence, are its core values.


Most Muslims would respond the very same way. Islam, they would say, is fundamentally a religion of peace, not violence (Islam and salaam come from the same root). Islam preaches a message of compassion and tolerance. It proclaims that all people are equal in God’s sight. These are its core values.

Christians can overcome their mistaken notions about Islam by better getting to know their Muslim co-workers and neighbours. They are people like you and I. They are concerned just like the rest of us about making ends meet, achieving security, finding personal fulfillment, and providing for their children’s wellbeing. We are not that different from one another.

We both seek to live moral lives and to walk rightly before our God. We both seek fairness and just treatment. We both know the importance of caring for our neighbours. These are the things that our religions teach us are truly important. This is what binds us together.

Photo credits: Evan Vucci/AP; Library of Congress; James Akena/Reuters; Thomas van Houtryve/AP

Keystone XL Pipeline Approved – Or Maybe Not

Keystone Pipeline OklahomaBoth the U.S. House and Senate have now approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Once the two versions of the bill go through a brief reconciliation process the finalized bill will be sent to the President for his signature. He must decide within ten days whether to sign it into law or veto it.

The House with its increased Republican majority took up the Keystone bill as its first item of major business. House Resolution 3 was introduced on Jan 6, 2015 and passed on Jan 9.

The Republican-led Senate then took up the bill as its first item of business and, after lengthy debate and some amendments, passed its version of the bill on Jan 29.

Sen. John Barrasso (photo courtesy U.S. Senate - click to enlargMembers supporting the Keystone XL bill argued that the pipeline is vitally important to the U.S. economy, saying it would add thousands of new jobs. For example, Sen. John Barrasso on Wyoming claimed on Meet the Press on Jan. 4 that, “[Obama’s] own State Department said it’s 42,000 new jobs.”

The only problem is, as Emily Atkin of ThinkProgress has pointed out,

The State Department did not say the Keystone XL pipeline would create 42,000 new jobs. Instead, it said the project would “support” 42,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs, 99 percent of which would be temporary, not lasting more than the two years it would take to construct. Once the project is completed, the State Department estimates that the pipeline would only create 35 full-time jobs.

These 35 jobs would be all that is needed for “routine inspections, maintenance and repair.”

construction of the gas pipelineSo how many actual short-term construction jobs (rather than secondary spin-off jobs) would be generated by this project? TransCanada, the Canadian company behind the project that would be shipping the oil through the U.S., has estimated that

the pipeline will create no more than 2,500 to 4,650 temporary direct construction jobs for two years,

or an average of 1,950 jobs each year.

TransCanada has also stated that the total cost over the two years of construction has now gone up from $5.4 billion to an estimated be $8 billion. That’s a lot of money for relatively few jobs. You really have to ask yourself if that is money well spent.

Of course, once the pipeline is operational it will send up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian heavy (tar sands) oil through the U.S. per day to Gulf Coast refineries. That is bound to help the U.S. economy by alleviating dependency on foreign oil imports. Right? Except that this refined product is primarily destined for export to other countries. Don’t look for it to flood American markets and reduce the price of gas at the pumps.

As President Barack Obama stated at his 2014 year-end press conference,

At issue in Keystone is not American oil. It is Canadian oil that is drawn out of the tar sands in Canada. That oil currently is being shipped out through rail or trucks and it would save Canadian oil companies and the Canadian oil industry an enormous amount of money if they could simply pipe it through the United States and all the way down to the Gulf. Once that oil gets to [the] Gulf, it is then entering into the world market and it would be sold all around the world.

CO2In the meantime, mining (yes mining) and liquefying this tar sands oil produces significantly more hydrocarbon emissions than conventional crude oils and is more damaging to the environment.

A study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute concluded that the pipeline would increase global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 121 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. That is four times the amount originally estimated by the U.S. State Department in its assessment of the environmental impact of the pipeline. As Adam Howard reported for MSNBC,

The results could have a traumatic effect on the planet’s atmosphere, which is already reeling from the prolonged effects of climate change.

Lac-Megantic-Oil-FireThe kind of oil to be shipped through the pipeline is also much more toxic, explosive (recall the catastrophic explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Québec in 2013, and harder to clean up than conventional oil when spilled. As Emily Atken explains,

cold lake tar sands bitumen spill_0When it spills, tar sands oil does not float on top of water like conventional crude. Instead, … it gradually sinks to the bottom. … This makes normal clean-up techniques and equipment of little use.

The XL pipeline is certain to provide increased profits for a few major oil producers, but will have little overall impact on job creation or boosting the American economy. Instead, it will create a greater hazard to the environment and to public safety. The bottom line: it is an ill-conceived, politically motivated, and environmentally hazardous piece of legislation that deserves to die.

President Obama has said that he will veto this bill when it comes across his desk. Let us hope that he is true to his word.

Image credits:Sue Ogrocki/AP; Sustainability Ninja

Obama’s Legacy – He’s Not Done Yet

Obama SOTU 2015-bWhat should one make of President Obama’s latest State of the Union Address? On the one hand it’s easy to dismiss it as being mere words, nicely spoken but without any real import. After all, there’s virtually no chance of the policies he proposed being put into law by the current Republican dominated Congress.

But his speech was not about specific proposals that he wanted Congress to pass. It was about something else; it was about securing his legacy, and about fundamentally changing the course of future public policy in America.

This was made clear by Obama’s choice of words at the very beginning when he said,

We are fifteen years into this new century.  Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world.  It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.

But tonight, we turn the page.

Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years. …

At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come. [emphasis added]

Financial crisis headlineBarack Obama has guided and overseen a dramatic period of change in America’s history that few presidents have witnessed. He will be remembered as the President who took office at a time when the country was teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the country’s largest financial institutions were insolvent, the auto industry was in ruins, millions of people had lost their jobs, and the national debt had soared to unbelievable levels. (Thank you George W. Bush.)

And what action did he take as president? With a Democratic majority in Congress helping him, in his first year in office, Obama

rescued the automobile companies, jump-started the renewable energy industry, imposed new rules on financial institutions and, most dramatically, engineered a major overhaul of the health care system.

That is no small feat. Furthermore,

On his own initiative [through executive action], he ordered major reforms in immigration policy, forged a landmark agreement with the automobile companies on fuel efficiency and proposed tough restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

That’s quite the legacy in just his first two years in office.

Tea Party RepublicanAfter the 2010 elections, when Democrats lost their majority in the House, Obama was not able to accomplish as much. In fact, thanks to an unrelenting onslaught of opposition from the Republican dominated House (invigorated by the Tea Party) he was put on the defensive, trying to simply retain what he had accomplished in his first two years.

No provocative new initiatives were forthcoming in his 2012 re-election campaign, as he appealed to the moderate middle ground of voters. In the 2014 midterm elections he also held back, trying (largely unsuccessfully) to protect Democrats up for re-election in red states.

But since then – with no more election campaigns ahead of him – Obama has gone on the offensive once more. He has in short order announced a new climate deal with China (demolishing the long standing objection that America can’t afford to curb emissions as long as China refuses do the same), entered into talks with Iran to curb their development of nuclear weapons, revealed extensive new immigration reforms, and (after 50 years of a failed embargo policy) begun normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Obama is determined to leave a legacy behind that will mark him as a real and effective change maker.

Establishing His Legacy

In emerging from the financial crisis, the road to financial recovery was agonizingly slow, hampered in great part by Republican refusal to approve spending initiatives to create new jobs in repairing a deteriorating infrastructure, developing new avenues of renewable energy, and investing in public education.

??????????Instead, Republicans promoted an austerity program of decreased government spending, severe cutbacks in social services to the needy, and continued tax cuts to the wealthy. The U.S. would have come out of its deep recession much sooner and much more robustly if Congress had backed increased social expenditures rather than austerity.

It was almost as if the Republicans wanted to make people more miserable and more desperate in hopes that the economic recovery would fail and people would take their anger and frustration out on the president. It was a cynical strategy, but effective – and it almost worked.

economicrecoveryEven within these constraints, the economy did recover – slowly and painfully while at every turn Republicans gleefully pointed to the continuing high unemployment rate and slow growth in the GDP. But over time the unemployment rate did come down, and the GDP did rise. Now Obama can point to the lowest unemployment rate since before the great recession, and the greatest number of jobs created under any presidency. The stock markets have doubled, economic expansion is now roaring ahead at 5%, and oil prices have been cut in half. The annual deficit has been cut by more than half since Obama took office, and the national debt is now safely under 3% of GDP – right where economists said it should be to get things back to normal.

Is Barack Obama single-handedly responsible for this dramatic turn-around. Of course not. But you know who will get the credit? He will. When people look back in future decades to those frightful days of the second “Great Depression,” they will forget the complexities of all the political infighting, the obstructionism of Congress, the painful sequester forced on the nation, and all the rest.

People will simply remember Obama as the president who pulled the country out of its economic free-fall, who put America back to work, who ended two ill-conceived wars that cost thousands of American lives, who broke the political impasse on immigration, who restored America’s reputation on the international stage, who created the path to energy self-sufficiency, and who (after 40 years of failed attempts by other administrations) finally implemented national health care.

Defining the Road Ahead

Save-the-Middle-ClassAnd now Obama is setting the tone for future public policy in America. The points he outlined in his speech are not policies that he hopes will be enacted by this session of Congress. They look beyond that. They form the framework for a national debate in preparation for the 2016 presidential election.

It is an agenda that Democrats can readily endorse – expanded opportunities for the middle class with the very wealthy paying more of their fair share. Can Republicans embrace such a platform? And if they campaign against it, does that make them the party that only defends the interests of the rich and powerful and doesn’t care about the majority of middle-class Americans? That’s going to prove awkward.

What if Republicans are forced to change their message and (heaven forbid, move leftward) to embrace more progressive social and economic policies?

Following Obama’s speech Brian Beutler penned a very insightful piece for the New Republic. He recalled how back in 2008 Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal that,

Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.

Beutler maintains that Obama wants to accomplish the same thing – to change the trajectory of America like Reagan did, but in the opposite direction.

This can be seen in Obama’s State of the Union Address. Barely into the speech Obama recounts that

Six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis … I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.

After reciting a number of his economic initiatives and their success, he concludes by saying,

The verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. [emphasis added]

The phrase “middle-class” economics is new. We have not heard it before. It is meant to signify the opposite of Ronald Reagan’s famous theory of “supply side” economics that focuses on increasing benefits for the wealthy in the belief that they will then create more jobs with their wealth, and the economic benefits will “trickle down” to those below.

trickle-down-economicsThirty years of economic history have shown that supply-side economics is a bust. The rich have simply pocketed their gains and the middle class has not benefited at all. George W. Bush’s naïve belief that providing further tax cuts for the rich would stimulate the economy has been shown to be completely ineffectual.

Obama is calling for an alternate strategy, one that focuses on providing benefits directly to the middle class to stimulate the economy.

It is an established fact that 70% of the economy rests on consumerism. When consumers have disposable income they will spend it on needed (and desired) goods and services. They will stimulate the economy. They will not hoard the money away like the rich, benefitting no one but themselves. They will not place it in offshore tax havens. And they will pay their fair share of taxes, unlike the super-wealthy who employ a raft of tax loopholes to avoid paying their fair share.

“Middle class economics” means investing in policies that stimulate middle class earnings so that they have disposable income to inject back into the economy. It means raising the minimum wage to a level where “the working poor” can actually live off their income and not be dependent on government supplements to survive.

It means providing equal pay for women. It means better early education and better skills training for better jobs. It means increased child support for working parents. It means having access to unemployment insurance and job retraining when necessary. And it means having health insurance coverage to protect from catastrophic financial loss due to illness (the source of 25% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S.).

This is to be the focus of the new debate leading into the 2016 elections. This is to be the new direction for America. For decades Americans blithely trusted that Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation would provide a path to prosperity for all.

We have seen how deregulation led to the massive economic crisis that capped the end of George W. Bush’s term in office. We have seen how under Reaganomics the immensely wealthy have vastly increased their wealth while the middle class has scarcely benefitted and the poor are even worse off than before. In the end Reaganomics generated a massive redistribution of wealth, taking from those who could least afford it and giving it to those who least needed it.

It is time to move back to the center, to restore prosperity for the middle class and provide greater opportunities for those who seek to join the middle class. It is time for America to go in a new direction. And Barack Obama is announcing that path.

George W. Bush’s Criminal Legacy – Part II

GeorgeWBushHIjoIn my last blog [George W. Bush’s Criminal Legacy – Part I] I laid out the case charging that the invasion of Iraq under former President George W. Bush was illegal under both domestic and international law, and that Bush along with his top advisors were liable to charges of war crimes.

I listed actions taken in other nations that give substance to these charges: In September 2005 a German court declared that the Iraq war violated international law. In March 2007 a Spanish judge called for the architects of the Iraq invasion to be tried for war crimes.

In October 2011 when Bush attended an economic summit in British Columbia, Amnesty International submitted a detailed legal brief to Canada’s Attorney General arguing that

Canada is required by its international obligations to arrest and prosecute former president Bush given his responsibility for crimes under international law including torture.

Bush cancelled an earlier visit to Switzerland in February 2011, after facing similar public calls for his arrest.

These actions all took place outside the United States and are generally regarded as unenforceable within American borders.

However, I noted at the end of that blog that in August 2013 a class action civil suit was filed against George W. Bush and five officials of his administration within the United States – in the U. S. District Court of the Northern District of California, which is currently slowly proceeding to trial. That suit is the focus of the present blog.

gavelThe lawsuit being discussed was filed by Inder Comar of Comar Law based in San Francisco on behalf of the lead plaintiff in the case, Sundus Shaker Saleh an Iraqi mother of three who is now a refugee in Jordan, “and those similarly situated.”

The defendants named in the case are former President George W. Bush, former Vice-President Richard Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Citing the precedent laid down at the post-World War II Nuremburg trials, the suit specifically charges that the

Defendants violated the rule of Nuremberg by attacking another country without legal justification, and specifically, by committing the crime of aggression against Iraq on March 19, 2003. Defendants violated the rule of Nuremberg by using fraudulent and untrue statements in an attempt to convince diplomats, world leaders and the American public that Iraq posed a threat to the United States and/or that Iraq was in league with al-Qaeda, when neither of these things was true.

Furthermore, the suit charges that the

Defendants violated the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a treaty signed in 1928, to which the United States is still a signatory. The Kellogg-Briand Pact requires signatory nations such as the United States to “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” The Kellogg-Briand Pact requires signatory nations such as the United States to resolve all disputes or conflicts through “pacific means.” As a Treaty of the United States, the United States Constitution incorporates this principle into its law under Article VI, clause 2, which declares “treaties made . . . to be the supreme law of the land.”

And that the

Blue_UN_logoDefendants violated the United Nations Charter by planning to commit the crime of aggression. Article II, Section 4 of the United Nations Charter requires countries to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nation.” As a Treaty of the United States, the United States Constitution incorporates this principle into its law under Article VI, clause 2, which declares “treaties made . . . to be the supreme law of the land.”

It is quite possible that the case will not succeed in the courts. The defendants may argue that they were acting properly under their “scope of employment” with the United States government.

Paul Stephan, who teaches law at the University of West Virginia and has served as a consultant to the Department of State on international law, states that

The Westfall Act of 1988 permits the United States as an entity to substitute itself in for individuals who were acting in their “scope of employment


it’s difficult to sue a U.S. employee acting under the “scope of employment.”

Even if no culpability is declared, the charges that are documented in the lawsuit are chilling. You can read the entire 27 page legal complaint here. It portrays a deliberate strategy to intentionally deceive the American public and to operate outside the scope of American and international law in launching an invasion against a foreign nation.

Details of the Lawsuit

New American CdnturySpecifically, the suit charges that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were all members of “The Project for the New American Century” [or PNAC] formed in 1997, which over the next three years produced a number of documents advocating the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein. [5; footnotes are as they appear in the lawsuit; the reader is encouraged to check the information sources detailed in the links] Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz actively promoted this objective in Congress. [6, 7]

President Bush received a briefing from the CIA on August 6, 2001 warning of Bin Laden’s determination to mount a major strike against the U.S. [13] However, Richard A. Clarke, the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism, later reported that the Bush administration was so focused on Iraq at that time that it failed to heed these warnings about an imminent attack from al-Qaeda.

The day after the 9/11 attacks, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld “openly pushed for war against Iraq – despite the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian and had been based out of Afghanistan.”

alqaeda-iraqlinkClarke reports an astonishing conversation that took place at the White House that day. President Bush approached him saying, “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.” When Clark replied, “But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this,” Bush responded, “I know, I know, but – see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred-” Clarke replied, “But you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of Al Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iran plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen.” “Look into Iraq, Saddam,” Bush repeated. [10]

Clarke concludes that Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Bush all sought to use 9/11 as a pretext to attack Iraq. [9]

In July 2002 the British government learned that the Bush administration was planning to attack Iraq and was “fixing” its intelligence around that policy. [14]

The suit charges that

In August 2002, the White House established a group called the White House Iraq Group (“WHIG”), the purpose of which was to convince the American public into supporting a war against Iraq. Defendant RICE was a member of WHIG, along with Karl Rove, I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, and other high-ranking Bush Administration officials.

boomAs reported by the New York Times, the centerpiece of their strategy was to use Mr. Bush’s upcoming speech on September 11 “to help move Americans towards support of action against Iraq, which could come early next year.” [16] Leading up to this event, on September 8, 2002 National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asserted on CNN’s Late Edition that Saddam Hussein was “actively pursuing a nuclear weapon,” and warned that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Former press secretary Scott McClellan would later state that Bush’s staff actively engaged in a “political propaganda campaign” aimed at “manipulating sources of public opinion.” [18]

On October 7, 2002 President Bush told the American people that

Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq …who have been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We’ve learned that Iraq has trained as Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. [19]

In the same speech Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had a group of “nuclear mujahaideen – his nuclear holy warriors.” A week later Bush repeated his charge that Saddam Hussein “has had connections with al Qaeda,” adding that, “This is a man who, in my judgment, would like to use al Qaeda as a forward army.” [20]

Bush made these statements despite the fact that “ten days after the 9/11 attacks, he was told in his daily brief (“PDB”) from the CIA that there was no evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 and scant evidence that Iraq had any collaborative ties with al Qaeda.” [21] In addition, “A Defense Intelligence Agency document from February 2002 confirmed that the source of the intelligence linking Iraq to al Qaeda was a likely fabricator and “intentionally misleading” his interrogators.” [22] [This has been reported on elsewhere in detail]

iraq-powellIn February 2003, Colin Powell gave a speech to the United Nations Security Council that was considered to be crucial for winning approval for military action against Iraq. In his speech, Powell alleged that Iraq “harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associated collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants,” that Saddam Hussein was “more willing to assist al-Qaida after the 1998 bombings of [US] embassies in Kenya and Tanzania,” and that, “From the late 1990s until 2001, the Iraqi Embassy in Pakistan played the role of liaison to the Al Qaeda organization.” [26] All of this was untrue. Powell later admitted, “I have never seen a connection [between Iraq and al-Qaeda. … I’d never seen evidence to suggest there was one.”

On March 18, 2003, acting on the orders of President Bush, the United States invaded Iraq. The lawsuit against George W. Bush and his co-defendants notes that the

Iraq warDefendants failed to secure United Nations authorization for the war. Article 39 of the United Nations Charter requires the United Nations Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42 to maintain or restore international peace and security.”


On September 14, 2004, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated, “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.” [28]

Based on the evidence contained in the suit, the plaintiff calls

1. For an order finding that Defendants planned and committed the crime of aggression.

2. For an award of compensatory damages against Defendants in an amount sufficient to compensate Plaintiff and all members of the Iraq Civilian Victims’ Class for damages they sustained as a result of Defendants’ illegal actions in planning and mounting a war of aggression against Iraq.

Should the defendants’ assets not be sufficient to cover these damages, the suit asks that the defendants

set up, manage and obtain other funding at their expense a restitution fund to provide for proper compensation to any and all Iraqi civilians who were damaged because of Defendants’ commission of the crime of aggression against Iraq.

It should be interesting to follow this case as it proceeds through the courts to see what the final determination will be.






[10] clarke.html?pagewanted=all

[9] This information is lifted from press articles and Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies – Inside America’s War On Terror (Free Press 2004).

[14] Doc14.pdf

[16] aides-set-strategy-to-sell-policy-on-iraq.html

[18] dyn/content/article/2008/05/27/AR2008052703679.html

[19] 8.html

[20] 3.html

[21] kept-from-hill-panel-20051122

[22] &_r=0



Photo credit:  Mario Tama, AFP/Getty Images

George W. Bush’s Criminal Legacy – Part I

US flag-TortureOn December 9th the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the torture of detainees by the CIA during the Bush administration. Reaction to the report has been swift and harsh. CIA officials and some Bush era appointees have tried to discredit the report, while others have demanded that those responsible for these crimes be brought to justice.

As disturbing as the findings in the Senate report are, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch notes that the scope of the report is actually quite limited. It only

deals with one aspect of one part of the detainee mistreatment in the war on terror [namely,] CIA prisoners held in black sites. … [I]t doesn’t talk about what the Pentagon was doing. It doesn’t talk about the programs approved by Donald Rumsfeld. And … it tends to kind of let off the hook all those people above who authorized these programs.

In my last post [Taking Action Against Torture] I laid out the grounds for pursuing criminal charges not only against George Tenet, the CIA Director during the Bush administration (who oversaw these torture practices) as well as those agents under his command, but also former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who approved these illegal interrogation methods), former Vice-President Dick Cheney (who was the driving force behind these illegal detention policies), and President George W. Bush (who authorize the CIA secret detention program and had ultimate authority over its operations). [See link]

But even this does not address the full scope of the illegal and criminal actions carried out on the international stage during the Bush administration.

The Case for War Crimes

Iraq warIn March 2003 the United States launched its invasion of Iraq to overthrow the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush explained at the time that this was necessary since Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and was known to be in league with al-Qaida.

His statements, and those of other top White House officials who orchestrated the invasion of Iraq, were later revealed to be false. President Bush lied to the American people. More importantly, it has been argued that his actions not only violated the U.N. Charter that forbids wars of aggression, but violated U. S. law as well.

As former federal prosecutor Elizabeth De La Vega wrote in a cover story for the Nation magazine in October 2005 detailing this deception:

The evidence shows, then, that from early 2002 to at least March 2003, the President and his aides conspired to defraud the United States by intentionally misrepresenting intelligence about Iraq to persuade Congress to authorize force, thereby interfering with Congress’s lawful functions of overseeing foreign affairs and making appropriations, all of which violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 371.

Appeals were made for the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the administration’s involvement in this deception much like the investigation into president Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in. But no action was taken. Some called for President Bush to be impeached, but nothing came of this during Bush’s remaining time in office.

international-flag1Actions were taken on the international stage, however. In September 2005 a German court declared that the Iraq war violated international law. In March 2007 a Spanish judge called for the architects of the Iraq invasion to be tried for war crimes.

In October 2011 when then ex-President Bush attended an economic summit in British Columbia, Amnesty International submitted an extensive legal brief to Canada’s Attorney General arguing that

Canada is required by its international obligations to arrest and prosecute former president Bush given his responsibility for crimes under international law including torture.

Although the Canadian government declined to take such action, the National Post (Canada’s national conservative newspaper) reported that

Bush cancelled a visit to Switzerland in February, after facing similar public calls for his arrest.

amnesty_logoLest anyone take Amnesty International’s charges lightly, it should be noted that its charges are well documented.

Amnesty’s case, outlined in its 1,000-page memorandum, relies on the public record, U.S. documents obtained through access to information requests, Bush’s own memoir and a Red Cross report critical of the U.S.’s war on terror policies.

We should also note that

In Kuala Lumpur, after two years of investigation by the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission (KLWCC), a tribunal (the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, or KLWCT), consisting of five judges with judicial and academic backgrounds, reached a unanimous verdict [in November 2011] that found George W. Bush and Tony Blair guilty of crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and genocide as a result of their roles in the Iraq War.

And finally,

In January 2014 a devastating 250-page dossier, detailing allegations of beatings, electrocution, mock executions and sexual assault, was presented to the International Criminal Court (ICC) … . This formal complaint to the ICC is the culmination of several years’ work by Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). It calls for an investigation into the alleged war crimes, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute.

All of the actions reported above have taken place outside the United States and, many would argue, are unenforceable within American borders.

However, in August 2013 a domestic class action civil suit was filed against George W. Bush and five officials of his administration that is proceeding to trial. I will provide a detailed examination of that case of my next blog.

Photo credit: RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images