Thursday, July 31, 2008

Playing Cards

An interesting piece was posted in the New York Times Caucus blog today, regarding the Presidential election and the increasingly aggressive debate between presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama, respectively. As the McCain camp has recently stepped up its game in ads portraying Obama negatively, Obama's response was that McCain was trying to "scare voters," show them that Obama is not like our past Presidents. McCain's campaign claimed that Obama played the "race card."

This got me thinking about the way our social characteristics are politically manipulated. I certainly believe Senator Obama has played the "race card" during his campaign, appealing to voters' sympathy regarding racial discrimination. Just as Senator Clinton played the "gender card." And Senator McCain perha
ps plays the "veteran card." President Bush, too, has often played the "faith card" during his administration. Many times, they called out one another's cards, playing them out again themselves!

These identity cards are used for man
y different purposes. Often they serve as mobilizing forces, rallying people around a shared identity, or emphasizing the importance and historic nature of a certain identity having greater value or potential in a leadership role when it historically could not. Sometimes the card is used to falsely accuse another of being racist, sexist, or intolerant of a characteristic, generally for a personal advantage. Other times they expose a genuine prejudice for a person's own political advantage, for example. Perhaps most disturbing, is when the identity card is used to devalue or minimize the existence of prejudice.

Professor Randy Pausch spoke true when he said, "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." It is important to use our cards as a tool for positive change rather than for a personal gain. It is important to use them to expose injustices and prejudices rather than to cloak them. Let's hope we can get away from politics as usual and see some real change.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Obama's Muslim Liaison

The newly formed position of Muslim Liaison on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Obama's campaign has been filled by Mazen Asbahi. As the National Coordinator for Muslim Affairs, Asbahi will head the campaign's outreach efforts to American Muslims and Arab Americans. Asbahi is a corporate lawyer in Chicago and will be based at the campaign headquarters here.

Amidst concerns that Senator Obama has been distancing himself from the American Muslim community and his mishandling of the claims that tie him to Islam, this is a positive step in reflecting the true inclusive values that the Senator espouses. While likely also a political ploy, it is still comforting to know that the campaign is making a solid effort to engage the American Muslim community, reaching out to a diverse nation of voters.

The Muslims Public Affairs Council summed up the importance of the step: "The inclusion of a Muslim American voice in the presidential campaign reinforces the principle of pluralism in the electoral process. MPAC is confident that Mr. Asbahi will encourage Muslim Americans to be civically engaged. MPAC encourages the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, to form a similar Muslim outreach program or appoint a liaison to the Muslim American community." Should Senator McCain reach out to American Muslims in a similar matter, we can truly say that our nation's leaders are engaging and valuing the diversity, the greatest asset in this country.

I can only hope, however, that the Mr. Asbahi will serve as a true liaison between the American Muslim community and Senator Obama, rather than being a substitute for him to appease American Muslims. The position should not replace the engagement and relationship that is necessary between our leaders and the citizens, but rather work to make the link stronger.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Government 101

It appears that a certain U.S. Representative needs to break out his old government textbook and take a look at the section about checks and balances. Politico reports that Rep. Louie Gohmert from Texas has submitted a bill that would bring the detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the grounds of the Supreme Court, allowing the highest court in the nation to "more effectively micromanage the detainees.” What this senator seems to believe is that the judiciary, as well as other members of Congress, are dipping their hands into the affairs of the government bodies that control Gitmo, as it has been called, namely the executive branch and the military.

What this representative seems to be forgetting is a little thing I'd like to call oversight. Just read the Constitution. The whole thing was centered around the fear that one government entity might gain too much power. Thus measures were put in place in order to allow the separate branches to "check" the power of one another. In other words, in a sense the branches are supposed to interfere with the actions of the other branches if boundaries are being overstepped.

So, what Gohmert is doing is attacking the heart of how our government was meant to function. Sure, perhaps he sees it differently. Perhaps he sees that the keepers of Gitmo are well within their legal mandates and the Supreme Court is the one involving itself in matters that is ought not to involve itself in. However, with much of the nation so wary about the happenings at the Cuban military site, I think it is safe to say that the Supreme Court is probably performing the kind of judicial review that it was designed to do.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Iran Running out of Time?

US officials are calling for Tehran to respond to the EU and UN Security Council proposals that would ultimately make Iran suspend its enrichment of uranium. The international stalemate with Iran has been long-standing, as Tehran says it wants to perfect enrichment to generate fuel, while critics fear the development of arms.

Iran wants to increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency “in accordance with [their] legal obligations,” said chief delegate Ali Ashgar Soltanieh. However, he questioned the IAEA’s probing of weapons allegations, claiming it to be outside of its domain, and a threat “fabricated and forged…by the US”. The IAEA’s report from May said that Iran may be withholding information and that Tehran continued expanding its uranium enrichment program, despite the UN Security Council’s retaliatory sanctions.

A package of incentives was discussed last week, in a meeting between Iran, the P5, Germany, and the EU, offering Iran access to technology for nuclear power plants that would take care of fuel supply and address their security concerns. The “freeze-to-freeze” negotiation, where Iran would freeze its uranium enrichment program and the international community would freeze its sanctions, would build confidence and the lay the groundwork for more substantive future negotiations.

Iran has less than a week to respond and US leaders are encouraging a quick reply, especially with the threat of more sanctions under their belt. Many believe that Iran is buying time until the US change in administration, as it is sure to play a large role in the foreign policy work of the next President.

Senator Obama has in the past said that he is willing to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but also insists on direct US talks with the country. In a press conference in France today with President Nicolas Sarokzy, he urged Iran to accept the UN and EU proposals.

Senator McCain’s foreign policy frustrations include the determination to continue disengagement with Iran. While he has said he is opposed to regime change, he has joked to “bomb-bomb-bomb Iran,” maintaining that Iran is a threat to Israel.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rethinking Pakistan

US foreign policy in Pakistan has played a large role in the heated debate regarding Muslim militancy in the Middle East over the past few years. As the US has traditionally aligned itself with Pakistan - except for a few years when it placed sanctions on the country as punishment for pursing its nuclear weapons program, which was socially and economically devastating to the nation - aid from the US is crucial to continue positive development in Pakistan, especially with volatility in the nation, where religious fundamentalists typically take advantage of socio-economic and political problems for their own gains, using religious vernacular to articulate larger issues that are not inherently based in religion.

There is much debate about what the US's role should be in Pakistan, with critics who are frustrated by the apparent loss of control by the in its northern regions to militants pursuing a more aggressive US foreign policy towards the nation, allies explaining that the country has done and is doing the best it can given the circumstances, and others who emphasize complete disengagement.

While I think the US has made many poor choices in the Middle East and South Asia, and in Pakistan in particular, I do not think disengaging with the nation is a wise option, nor is pursuing an aggressive strategy. I think it is important for us to recognize first that Pakistan is a very young nation, barely 60 years old. While it has had fair economic success over the past years, it is still a developing nation, with a majority of the population suffering from poverty. Pakistan faces social, political, environmental, and economic problems similar to many nations, especially today considering the state of international affairs and the common global issues.

As the Bush administration seeks to shift over $200 million to Pakistan in military aid, we must be wary of our apparent ease in transferring such great funds to the Pakistani military with practically no "check up," (we must be wary of this anywhere, anytime, really) and recognize the negative consequences in the way we dealt with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Those who argue for increased air strikes in the northern regions forget that there are still over 250 Afghan refugee and IDP villages in the north, with many children, that often face the brunt of religiously-inspired violence and retaliation from the international community. Those who call for sanctions and disengagement forget the dependency of Pakistan's economy to the US, and the interdependent regional and global economies that are already suffering, a backlash of globalization.

What needs to be done now is a shift in focus. The US should support largely non-security projects in Pakistan, helping develop the infrastructure: building schools, roads, access to clean water and sanitation, and hospitals. Also, the US should show support for greater judicial, political, and democratic good governance reforms. Economic, environmental, and human rights concerns need to be addressed, while aiding the large and ever-increasing refugee population. In essence, poverty reduction is key.

Religiously inspired violence is the direct result of socio-economic and political problems that marginalize a community of people, causing a rebellion that is articulated in religious terms. Instead of truly reflecting or believing in some violent religious ideology, these aggressor seeks to change the socio-economic or political status-quo that marginalized them, using religion as a tool for mobilization. A change in policy measures that focuses on the root of the problem rather than its outcome is likely to be more successful in Pakistan and around the world. Additionally, it will make facing current important threats, like Al-Qaeda, much easier, more effective, and efficient. Security aid should be based on incentives and performance, rather than serving as a blank check. More importantly, however, we must recognize that security aid is only useful in the short-run and relying only on military means will have negative consequences in the long-run, as we have historically seen.

I can only hope that the tough talk that our current Presidential candidates are espousing will be seriously reevaluated. Pakistan is on its way to be at the forefront our foreign policy focus for the next few years, and it'd be nice not to, for once, repeated out mistakes.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Housing Bill

The House of Representatives just passed a Housing Bill which aids mortgage finance companies, helps homeowners avoid foreclosure, and creates a new affordable-housing trust fund that will aid Americans who cannot afford to buy homes, in addition to providing tax incentives and raising the national debt limit.

The biggest question raised by the Bill, as was reported in the NY Times, is whether it “will be sufficient to slow the downward spiral of home prices and help the economy recover from what many experts now expect to be a prolonged slowdown.”

Although President Bush originally opposed the Bill, regarding one of the provisions to be a bailout, he was advised to support it by the Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson Jr., who insisted that the Bill was necessary to help stabilize the housing and credit markets, and backed off the veto threat.

President Bush received great criticism for supporting the bill from Republican Congressionals, such as Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who claimed that the government was showing “‘gross incompetence’ with the housing bill,” while others emphasized that the disaster is now waning. Other still forecast that the bill will be able to aid significantly less than a quarter of the millions of homeowners who are likely to lose their homes within the next year, and that the proposal falls short.

As the bill may become a law by the end of the week, it will be interesting to see what further initiatives the government is taking to aid the housing market and the millions of citizens struggling.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Peace in the Middle East

While we can hope Senator Obama makes peace with the color green (see post below), we hope also that our next US President can make peace in the Middle East, particularly in regards to the drawn out Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The LA Times did a great job of recognizing and explaining 10 key points about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that our next leader will have to deal with:
  1. The current political climate is stable and more inclined to positively engage in the peace process than historically.

  2. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions with Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the War in Iraq are all interdependent on one another. Peace in one are can encourage the peace process in others; hostility in one area can breed problems in another.

  3. Israel and Iran are openly threatening one another.

  4. The American commitment is necessary within the Arab-Israeli peace process, as – and I’m adding this point – we are on the one hand aggressors in the region, and yet mediators for peace.
  5. The last comment from the above point leads nicely into this one: it must be recognized that America’s customary preference of Israel when it claims to be a fair mediator undermines its legitimacy and the peace process for both Palestinians and Israelis.

  6. Another tie – expanding Jewish settlements into the West Bank despite pledges to freeze them have been counterproductive to the peace process between Israel and Palestine, as has the US’s tendency to look the other way when it happens.

  7. Israeli-Palestinian talks generally lack promise, and leaders should hold steadfast in their pursuit of peace rather than give into frustrations.

  8. Engaging Hamas is crucial, but it is necessary to do so without giving their radical tactics credibility.
  9. Engaging Syria is also important, with the US as a facilitator.

  10. And finally, Richard Bordeaux recognizes that Mid East tours are often conducted as political ploys and those affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recognize this, not expecting much of a change in the political tension. Senator McCain and Senator Obama need to be prepared for a long road ahead that awaits in the Middle East for whomever should win, and need to be committed to the peace process.

    Senator McCain visited the region in March, while Senator Obama is there now. Both candidates are fervent in their efforts to show off foreign policy skills as the US Presidential race carries on.

    [Pictures – Top: Senator Obama meets with King Abdullah II in Amman, Jordan, today. Above: Senator McCain with Senator Joseph Lieberman at the “Hall of Names” during their visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem this March.]

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Obama's Camp is Anti-Green

As I sit in the office on a Tuesday morning, catching up on my daily dosage of, I’m both amused and surprised at a headline that catches my eye. “Obama Ban: What Not to Wear Where?” it reads. I think to myself, Senator Obama, are you kidding me? Are you really going to appear on TLC’s “What Not to Wear” as a publicity stunt?

We should be so lucky. Stacey London and Clinton Kelly won’t have that honor it seems. Rather , the article was referring to the Obama camp’s visit to the Mideast! What do fashion and the Middle East have in common I ask? The article replies, why the color green of course!

(per Obama's staff's rules, this shirt is out of the question!)

It appears that one of Obama’s high level staff members, in an advisory to his colleagues and traveling press, spelled it out: “Do not wear green”. When asked why, the reply was, because it’s the color of Hamas!

My next reaction was, great, so you can’t wear green because it’s a color of Hamas. But wait, it’s also the color of Islam! Is this a sad attempt by the Obama camp at distancing the Senator from his so-called ties with Islam? Yes, it is even if they’re not saying it.

I am reminded of how much we, as Americans hated red because it was the color of Communism. It was loathed; it was avoided like the plague (so to speak). I never understood it but I wasn’t from that time; maybe that’s why. I have to ask though: isn’t green just a color?

Now I have a few follow-up questions of my own, to this strange ban on green:
-What if you have an affinity for green colored eyes? Can you also not wear contact lenses?
-Does this ban include not wearing any green Irish paraphernalia like the clover leaf symbol?
-Do you not visit Saudi Arabia because it has green on its flag?
-Queen Rania has been photographed many times wearing green. Does that mean she supports Hamas or does that make her worthy of being shunned?

Senator Obama and staff, everyone is laughing at your ridiculous ban on the color green. Even the Republicans are taking cheap-shots: “I hear they’re not going to order croissants because they are crescent shaped”.

My advice to you is this: let TLC take care of fashion (I assure you, green is not the new red) and why don’t you stick to what you do best: politics

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ask and Thou Shall Receive

The Obama camp recently announced new hires: Corey Ealons to serve as the communications director for African American media, and – hold your breath! – a new Muslim liaison position, reported by Politico possibly to be filled by Haim Nawas, a Jordanian-American expert on Political Islam and a political analyst with the Rothkopf Group. Nawas filled a similar role for the campaign of General Wesley Clark in 2004.

So much has happened this election season with regards to Senator Obama’s campaign and his apparent ties to Islam. After months of dispelling the “smear” that he is Muslim, the incident at the campaign rally where two headscarf-donning Muslim women were asked not to be in the backdrop of a picture, frustrations by the American Muslim community with his and Senator McCain demeanor and lack of American Muslim engagement, and then the recent New Yorker article and its subsequent drama, it seems the good Senator has finally gotten the hint.

While the position is likely partly a political ploy, it is still refreshing to see a leading Presidential candidate make an effort to remain educated about the American Muslim community and take steps to politically engage it. Hopefully, this role will increase civic participation from American Muslim themselves, as well as encourage other politicians to play an active role in involving other underrepresented communities.

I recently had a conversation about Senator Obama’s handling of his “Muslim problem” with a group of Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans at an interfaith meeting. While some acknowledged that Obama could have better articulated his vision of inclusiveness and managed the “problem” better, they recognized the current political climate and Obama’s personable character and relationships, basically tolerating the negative representation of Muslims that was unfortunately, unintentionally espoused. I do not think, however, offensive representations of any community, faith tradition or culture, should ever be tolerated. If this were any other faith community that was negatively spoken about, there would have been an uproar - and rightly so. It is important that we hold our leaders accountable for their actions and words. Whether it is positive inclusive values versus discriminating against people at a campaign rally, fighting the smear on his reputation that he is Muslim in a way that is offensive or creating a position to increase engagement with a community of people, both the negative and positive require our attention and responses.

Americans around the nation have spoken up against way Muslims have been negatively represented, in both Senator Obama and Senator McCain’s campaigns. Senator Obama later personally apologized to the two hijab-clad women from the rally, emphasizing his commitment to the diversity of this nation. It is exciting to see that our responses have been acknowledged, and that the candidates themselves can institute a change for the better.

An Overview of Recent Tactics, Challenges

In the effort to keep voters up to date on the latest from each campaign, I have prepared a brief summary of recent developments regarding political strategies and challenges coming out of both the Obama and McCain campaigns.


Trip to the Middle East
- Though the Obama camp talks about it as an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with other leaders, this trip, announced earlier this summer, may be seen as an attempt to demonstrate that the democratic hopeful has what it takes to handle the foreign relations aspect of the presidency. The question that remains, as presented in an earlier post, is whether this will actually convince skeptics.
Framing Iraq- Instead of coming out on the defensive, combatting suggestions that, based on his position on Iraq, he is soft on terrorism, Obama is now trying to frame the debate to focus on Afghanistan. In a speech on the war on terror, Obama calls efforts in Iraq a "dangerous distraction" and argues that the bulk of our efforts should target Afghanistan because the heart of terrorist operations lie in this country. This strategy allows him to take a strong stance on terrorism without having to compromise his position on Iraq.

Trip Abroad Highlights Foreign-ness
- A recent article suggests that the wide support Obama enjoys abroad does not necessarily help his campaign. Rather, this support may serve to show that he is "not one of us" and has too much in common with other nations in the eyes of American voters.


First, there is one attacking Obama's position on Iraq, particularly with regards to financing for U.S. troops and his lack of Iraq visits in recent years. Another ad links Obama to rising gas prices. It promotes drilling as a solution to the current oil crisis and Obama's opposition to drilling, according to the ad, represents an opposition to "independence from foreign oil".

unding- Various sources have reported that on the last day of June, Obama racked in a reported $25 million, which is more than the McCain campaign earns in an entire month. This is not to say that the amount of money a candidate has and spends will determine the winner in the next election, but realistically it really couldn't hurt to have a monetary edge.
Iraq Timetable- Recent negotiations have placed McCain in a tough situation regarding his position on troop withdrawal. After reaching an agreement on Friday, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki both acknowledged their support for developing a "time horizon" for U.S. troop withdrawal. While this appears to support Obama's position on troop withdrawal, both leaders later tried to make it clear that they were not endorsing the democratic nominee's stance. However, it is clear that McCain is not yet on the same page as everyone else.

To be sure, these are not the only strategies and challenges the candidates are using and facing. However, this sampling does show generally what Obama and McCain are up against and how the are trying to deal with these obstacles.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Race Divide

The “race divide” has been a subject in this Presidential election, regarding not only Senators John McCain and Barack Obama themselves, but their voters. While politics in American have generally been divide don partisanship, with perhaps some unique voting blocks, a recent New York Times poll highlighted a racial discord for this season.

Perceptions of cultural pluralism significantly differed by different races in the poll. While Obama had support from about 80% of the black respondents, he had only 30% of the white support. McCain conversely had 35% white support and only 5% support from black respondents. The negative view on race relations in the US had in fact increased since the NY Times extensively researched it in 2000.

The poll is indicative of our nation’s social and political climate. Issues stemming from prejudice about race, faith, and other social characteristics are rampant. The Presidential candidates have been struggling to appeal to a diverse group of voters, as Obama increasingly gains support from Latino voters - most of which are concerned about immigration, as McCain recently spoke to the NAACP and called for educational improvements in black districts, and as Native-American voters are mobilized as large blocs in states like New Mexico.

As African-American and Latino-American communities are greatly engaged, it remains to be seen how other ethnic communities are engaged as well, like Asian-Americans. The inclusion of this nation’s diversity is important, and the candidates should be more careful in how they address certain issues that would exclude an entire community, remain aware of the diverse groups that are waiting in line, and recognize that every community holds sway in the pluralistic fabric of this country.

Oh No....

It would seem that Republican nominee John McCain may need to put some distance between himself and former POW and campaign supporter Bud Day. In a recent conference call with reporters, Day, speaking for the presidential hopeful, said "The Muslims have said either we kneel or they're going to kill us... I don't intend to kneel and I don't advocate to anybody that we kneel, and John doesn't advocate to anybody that we kneel." Such a statement has no place in any nominee's campaign. It is clearly a gross oversimplification of an extremely complicated conflict. Though this story has not been picked up by many of the major news outlets, I think it would be wise for McCain, in a statement or in his next discussion of the war, to demonstrate an understanding that the present situation cannot be and should not be reduced to a war of religious ideologies.

In terms of anti-Muslim sentiments coming out of this presidential race, this event reminds us of when a Muslim woman was prevented from sitting on stage with Sen. Obama because campaign representatives did not want the Democratic candidate to appear in photographs with a Muslim wearing a headscarf. In both cases, the candidates themselves were not directly involved. Also, I would suggest that also in both cases, these events may have more to say about the attitudes of American people, or the candidate's perceptions of the views of Americans, rather than the candidates themselves.

What these separate though related occurrences suggest is that Americans, as perceived by political strategists on both sides of the aisle, do not have a positive perception of Muslims and do not want to see the leaders of this nation associating with Muslims. The rumored connection between Obama and Islam is illustrative of this point, as it has served as a major impediment to his campaign. Some voters, even though Obama has repeatedly discussed his devotion to the Christian faith, are cautious of supporting the presumptive Democratic nominee because even the slightest connection scares them. So, in order to counteract such fears, we see not only Obama but also McCain, distancing themselves from the Muslim-American community while simultaneously trying not to appear outwardly hostile or intolerant.

So it seems that Bud Day's comments are a more potent version of something that underlies each campaign's strategies and their understandings of the typical American voter. Some will say and have said that Day is 83 years old so we should understand that he developed his world view in a very different era rife with prejudices, stereotypes and generalizations. This may be true, but this is also not a valid excuse for words and actions in this era. Times have changed and comments such as these are unacceptable. Obviously these words did not come directly from McCain. However, the McCain camp must also recognize that anything said by a campaign surrogate may be taken as coming from the candidate himself and McCain must be wary of invoking the aid of people who speak of such falsehoods. Furthermore, events such as these bring issues of intolerance to the surface and I would challenge both candidates not to see them as speech which requires damage control but rather see them as opportunities to discuss something that affects each and every one of us in some way.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Torture Question

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft recently withdrew the Department of Justice legal opinions that approved the use of harsh interrogation tactics, testifying in front of a House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. Ashcroft claimed that the legal reasoning behind the 2002 and 2003 memos were flawed, though he originally approved both of them and still defends their conclusions.

The memos were written in part by former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, who has contributed to the PATRIOT Act and advocated against the protection of enemy combatants under the Geneva Conventions.

Interrogation tactics like waterboarding, used by the CIA against al-Qaida detainees, putting cloth on a person’s face and then pouring water over them to create the sensation of drowning, have been criticized around the world. Whether or not this can be defined as torture, however, has been hotly contested. Ashcroft maintains that he does not believe that the Bush administration has committed acts of torture, praising the administration on the fact that there not have been any attacks following 9.11. He has in the past, however, denied reauthorization of Bush's domestic surveillance program to then White House Counsel and now former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, which the DOJ had determined illegal.

The controversial definition of torture according to the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel’s Bybee memo is “acts inflicting…severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical,” with physical pain being “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”. The memo additionally stated that even if an act is “cruel, inhuman, or degrading,” it does not necessarily inflict the amount of pain that should be prohibited, and that "necessity" and self-defense may justify even prohibited interrogation methods. So much for our constitutional right protecting against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

There is a distinction between legitimate interrogation and torture, and while much of the international community seems to have recognized this, our nation’s leaders have yet to find it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Speak for Yourself

This year’s presidential race seems to be all about identity. Candidates and their voters are being grouped by various characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, age, faith, even down to the trivial details of what car they drive and the coffee they drink.

But more importantly, we’re seeing candidates and voters take control of the identities that are forced upon them, reshaping them to serve as empowering tools rather than demoting qualities.

No more clearly is this seen than in Senator Barack Obama’s efforts to dispel the misconception that he is Muslim. While Senator Obama refutes the apparent “smear” on his reputation and avows his Christian faith, American Muslims – whose identities have been hijacked by radicals, extremists and, yes, terrorists – are increasingly taking ownership of their identities, affirming their faith and American citizenship.

I recently had the opportunity to further define my own identity as a young American Muslim at the Second Annual Muslim Public Affairs Council’s National Muslim American Young Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together 25 young Muslim-American leaders from across the nation in the spirit of building civic engagement, serving as voices for the American Muslim community and working to help improve this nation for everyone.

The summit embodied the values for which this nation stands. The diverse group of young American Muslims met with an equally diverse panel of leaders from government agencies and think tanks. We viewed a presentation by the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, met with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher at the Department of State, and held spirited discussions with members of Congress on issues including the presidential election, the environment, foreign policy, religious freedom, and immigration.

Those three days in our nation’s capital made the political wonk in me feel like a kid at Christmas – or rather, Eid. And they gave me a renewed appreciation for the various civic engagement opportunities back here in Chicago, where I sometimes felt disconnected from the larger political realm. The deliberate engagement of minority communities is not foreign to such a diverse yet segregated city.

As a senior at DePaul University, it is ingrained within me to interact with diverse communities. We are united in our shared values while learning from differences. We are committed to service and social justice as part of DePaul’s history and Vincentian values. Chicago Muslims have been actively involved around the city in their academic settings, with mosques or with community organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Inner-city Muslims Action Network, and the Interfaith Youth Core.

Although a large part of American Muslim civic engagement today puts a strong emphasis on faith – as in response to the misconceptions and radicalizations about Islam – it also asserts an American identity, established through cultural awareness and engaged citizenship on issues shared by all Americans. But I wasn’t sure that the government officials in Washington, D.C., would understand this part our American-Muslim identity and worried that we would be neglected or met with disdain on the Hill.

I found instead that our nation’s leaders are enthusiastic about engaging the American-Muslim community – contrary to the demeanors of our current presidential candidates – and are very receptive to our concerns, recognizing them as common concerns shared by all their constituents. Although there was the occasional obligatory pandering, it was refreshing to interact in an open and honest dialogue and be challenged by leaders like Congressman Keith Ellison – the first Muslim elected to Congress – to stand firm as American Muslims.

Minority communities around the world have historically been forced to deal with the identities that are defined for and then thrust upon them by others. Like others in the past, and those who are still trying, Muslim Americans now face the challenge of recognizing and redefining their identities and roles in this nation.

We are tasked with debunking Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory – the flawed assumption that aggressors outweigh the peaceful and pluralistic. The peaceful and pluralistic must work to make their voices heard through actions that speak louder than those of the aggressors. American Muslims will find that voice through civic engagement.

Satire or Simply Offensive?

In an effort to counteract rumors and myths about presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, the New Yorker has published an article in its July 21st issue entitled "The Politics of Fear". But the article is not what has people talking. Just talked a glance at the cover shows you what all the fuss is about.

The cover illustration depicts the presumptive democratic nominee in the oval office wearing a turbin while his wife brandishes a gun and the American flag burns in the fireplace. The author responded to critics by saying that the image is intended to demonstrate how false information is being used in this campaign to hinder the efforts of Obama and his supporters.

Particularly in the age of the Internet, this image may find itself being used against what it was originally intended to do. It may quickly begin to float around to the farthest depths of the World Wide Web and pretty soon, it will have lost its satirical edge and those who those who were scarded by the accusations shown in the image will continue to have reservations about Sen. Obama. At the moment, he has chosen to remain silent on this issue, though some in his campaign have spoken out, saying that the cover is offensive.

I agree with the author; measures such as these should be taken to demonstrate that accusations contribute nothing nothing to either campaign. However, I also think that one must be careful when trying to do this, considering that when someone does not understand the satire, they miss the message and may begin to think that some aspect of reality, rather than a form of commentary, is being illustrated.
Click here to view the "New Yorker" cover.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) stipulates procedures for the surveillance of persons in the US for foreign intelligence purposes. The 1978 law provided the “exclusive means by which electronic surveillance…and the inception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted.” The Bush Administration, however, did not follow FISA, as the law requires court approval, and considered it to be an nuisance when considering the need for immediate intelligence. The warrantless wiretapping carried out by the National Security Agency after 9.11 has been criticized as a violation of the Fourth Amendment and of FISA.

The 2008 provisions make changes to the existing FISA authorities and procedures prevent delay in wiretapping. The changes are designed to allow surveillance to move faster from the field to the FISA Court for oversight, modernize electronic surveillance authority to prevent attacks, and to ensure that America gets the vital intelligence it needs while preserving the individualized judicial review necessary to protect American’s legitimate privacy rights.

Senator Obama was among a few Democrats who supported the new FISA Bill after initial reservations, claiming that is sworn in as President, he would have "the attorney general conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs" and take the necessary steps to "preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future.”

Senator McCain was out campaigning during the debate on the bill and its amendments. It passed by a 69-28 vote without him. The McCain camp used Obama's seeming reversal in their favor, emphasizing McCain's consistency and commitment to a promise.

As the bill effectively allows for warrantless wiretapping and telecom immunity, additionally blocking numerous lawsuits intended to expose abuses of power by the federal government since 9.11, many have criticized its passing.

John McCain Goes Techie

Believe it or not, in this age of computers, cell phone, blackberries and PDAs overall, Senator McCain is "computer illiterate" as he puts it. As he heads into the general election campaign season, he is making an effort to be more tech savy, especially given that his much younger contender, Senator Barack Obama relies on technology so often (he's been using his blackberry, yup he's been photographed a few times with it ).

How much will McCain's attempt to connect to the younger, tech savy voters come into play this election? McCain certainly seems to think, it will a lot and that's why you will see him using that blackberry or reading his daughter's blog (as he said he wants to) once in a while!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Power to the People

This election, arguably more than ever, the candidates are really trying to get to every voter. Recently and in separate speeches, Barack Obama has geared his words toward both women and blue-collar workers, groups with very different agendas. Every demographic category has been the target audience of at least one speech from both the Republican and Democratic candidates, thus giving each and every voter some level of power.

But why do the candidates do this? It's simple really. They need us. They cannot win without us. If you remember back to the days that you spent in school learning about democracy, that's the general idea. The candidates are designed to work for each and every vote. Therefore, an individual certainly has the power to effect an election. But, with enough people, their individual strength becomes a collective power which may draw a certain amount of recognition from political bodies.

Take, for instance, Hispanic voters in the upcoming election. Both candidates have been actively working for the votes of this demographic. Why? Mainly because they now make up a highly significant proportion of the American electorate and, let's be honest, our economy is growing more and more dependent on its workforce. Especially in states like Florida and California, if Hispanic voters align themselves with one particular candidate, it could mean victory in that state and an important boost in the Electoral College. Basically, strategists and politicians recognize the power of this key voting bloc so it is up to Hispanic voters as individuals to act on this recognition.

For the individual in general, this efficacy translates into aligning oneself with a group that he/she truly identifies with and doing what can be done to demonstrate that that group represents a set of voters which would be foolish to ignore, whether it is on a local or national scale. One way for groups with small numbers to do this is to latch onto one issue that is particularly important for them but also has more far-reaching significance. For example, African Americans have and continue to be extremely vocal on civil rights problems. By highlighting these issues, they connect their struggles to those of almost every other demographic, linking their issues to individuals unconnected to their cause. In so doing, they make their issues, everyone's issues and the effectiveness lies in the idea that outsiders will recognize that they can be somehow effected in the same way as the other group's members. If you think about it, this is exactly like rhetorical strategies used by politicians in passing legislation. Thought they represent only one vote, they talk about the goal they want to achieve in such a way that shows it to effect more than just him/herself and his/her constituents. Building support starts with building a personal connection to a cause. Showing that others have something to gain or lose by supporting or not supporting your cause gives you the power to frame how people will think about and act on your issue.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Economy on the Rise

No, that’s not the US economy, which is still facing many problems including rising oil prices, the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing bubble, increasing unemployment and underemployment, affecting nearly every country in the world with the interdependent global market. Debate on economic issues is on the rise among our Presidential contenders, Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama.

McCain has reverted to his original pledge to balance the budget within his potential first term in office. “The near-term path to balance is built on three principles: reasonable economic growth, comprehensive spending controls, and bi-partisanship in budget efforts…In the long-term, the only way to keep the budget balances is successful reform of the large spending pressures in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid,” the McCain campaign says in a policy paper that was released today (pg 4). The kinds of reforms, however, have yet to be spelled out.

“The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.” With the new timetable for US withdrawal that Iraq may agree with, this is possible. But, that’s assuming either of the cases is thought a victory, and on what terms.

According to the NYTimes, “fiscal analysts who have examined his economic plans say that his calls to extend the Bush tax cuts while cutting corporate and other taxes would likely increase the deficit.”

The Democrats eagerly seized his pledge, calling it unrealistic. Obama’s campaign is working to emphasize economic issues as “a discussion on economic security for American’s families,” pushing his proposals that aid families and provide more direct benefits.

The battle between McCain and Obama continues as economic issues come to the forefront of this election for the time-being. When Bush first came into office the budget was in surplus. Our ridiculous deficit now demands attention, as do other issues that are significantly affecting our economy, but the solution is not so easy.

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End of an Era?

On the day marking U.S. independence from Great Britain, former Senator Jesse Helms passed away at the age of 86. Helms, the well-known Republican politician, has been the ultra-conservative enemy of the Democratic party since he came to the Senate in 1973. Many have hailed him as one of the fathers of the modern conservative movement, with his beliefs about such things as racial segregation. There is no doubt that this man made a deep impact on U.S. politics in his time. However, one question remains: will his legacy live on without him?

The conservative movement has suffered a small blow with his passing as did the Moral Majority with the death of Jerry Falwell last spring. Helms was certainly a leader in conservative American politics but I find it hard to believe that his death will mark the fall of the conservative movement. However, it seems that this, in combination with other events, may inspire a transformation in the more conservative branches of the Republican party. With McCain we already see hints of this transformation. Through this nominee we see that while the commitment to some positions is not likely to change, such as the right to life and support for military funding, Republicans may be more willing to shift positions than they have in past. The McCain campaign is departing from the policies of the Bush administration. In the effort to speak to the moderate voter, who is the main focus of this election year, McCain has tried to push his message closer to the middle and farther away from far-right, conservative message of previous Republicans.

But he hasn't done this just for the election. For years, McCain took a lot of flak for taking on positions that were sometimes more popular with Democrats and extremely moderate Republicans, even serving as an ally to the opposing party on certain issues. So what does this mean when we consider that he is the GOP nominee for the White House? Could this be signaling a fundamental shift in the conservative agenda? As with all things political, this remains uncertain but having McCain as the leader of the Republican party would certainly suggest that not only does the GOP believe McCain to be best able to win against the Democrats, but he is also the best person to share the Republican message with the American people. And, though some actions, like meeting with famed evangelical preacher Billy Graham and his son, reveal the political necessity of sticking to some old approaches, the general message McCain speaks about is somewhat less conservative than usual, suggesting that the Republican party may in fact be ready for a new shift, however slight it may be.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Democratic Presidential contender Senator Barack Obama recently was reported to possibly “refine his Iraq timeline”.

Since 2002, Obama had been staunchly opposed to the War in Iraq, calling it a “dumb war” at an anti-Iraq War Rally in Chicago on October 2nd, 2002. Unable to vote on the Congressional Joint Resolution that authorized the war, Obama was dismayed that many Democratic leaders supported it. He had called for a withdrawal of troops to begin last year, and encouraged diplomatic dialogue with the infamous Iran and Syria. In early 2007, Obama introduced the Iraq War De-Escalation Act, hoping to remove troops by March of this year. While Obama has not supported funding cuts to the war, emphasizing the responsibility of the US to essentially clean up the mess it has made in the nation, his promise to have all combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months of potentially serving as President has been especially appealing to voters.

Obama has recently announced a trip to Iraq for later this month, intending to meet with American military commanders to assess the situation in the nation. “I’ve always said that the peace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed,” he said at a campaign stop in North Dakota.
“And when I get to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”

Obama’s remarks were immediately criticized by the GOP, with accusations of his trip being a political stunt in the election against Republican contender Senator John McCain, and a reverse of his position in the Democratic primary campaign. The flip-flopper charge which worked so well in the 2004 Presidential Election, completely damaging John Kerry’s campaign against President Bush, has been stealthily making its way back into this election.

Whether Obama’s “refinement” of the Iraq timeline is a weakening of his position and break of his promise and trust, or if it is a political maneuver to gain more moderate and conservative votes, or if truly is a representation of his thoughtful foreign policy skills will be seen. Maybe it's time I refine my thoughts on this “Change we can believe in”…?

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

"Trading Spaces"

The US economy and global trade is a hot topic this Presidential election. As contenders Senator Obama and Senator McCain travel the world and show-off their foreign policy skills, as globalization rears its head.

Many economists predict the US economy could fall into recession this year, as the 4% growth rate from last year has dropped to almost one-half of one percent! The gap between the wealthy and the poor is ever-widening, as many of the rich receive tax cuts while spending programs increase dramatically.

Looking internationally, McCain's trip to Colombia included an emphasis on the importance of free trade and encouragement for support of a US-Colombian bilateral trade agreement that would lift most tariffs on goods exchanged between the two nations. McCain spoke against protectionist and isolationist policies, citing historical examples of failure. Democrats, on the other hand, voice concerns over the loss of US jobs and violence, such as that against trade union leaders in Colombia. Obama promises to renegotiate the North-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a highly controversial multilateral trade bloc created by the US, Canada and Mexico. It is unclear however, if this promise holds weight, as there have been reports of aides apparently making different comments on the side.

While it is today the largest trade bloc in the world based on purchasing power parity and has made great leaps in opening up the global market, critics of NAFTA cite many concerns, including the ties to illegal immigration, energy and environmental problems, growing income disparities in all three nations, weak growth in employment wages, trafficking, and human rights abuses. Trade agreements around the world have often resulted in larger, more powerful nations and major corporations taking advantage of less powerful nations and their resources. As many times the case in the relationship between developed and developing nations, developing nations are left worse off than before, as developed nations and big companies reap the benefits.

There is no easy solution. I'm all for free trade - or more accurately, economic freedom - but not at the expense of others. With economic freedom and our increasingly globalizing world comes the responsibility to provide fair trade, alleviate poverty, and promote sustainability. Determining priorities and national strategies to reform policies is necessary. As the elections progress, it will be interesting to see how our delegates deal with trade and our economy, especially as it strongly connects to other important issues.

Obama Running Like He Wants to Win

A lot of people have asked me in the last few weeks why Barack Obama doesn’t seem like “a man of the people” these days. In fact, I have asked myself that very question. Before every election, I try to research as much as I can about the candidates and try to get to know them as much as anyone can from a distance. That doesn’t mean I research their policy positions and leave it at that; I try to read their autobiographies (the trend for autobiographies, ladies and gentlemen is in!) and then evaluate who aligns most closely to my personal values.

I’m currently reading Senator Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father and I can’t really say that Barack Obama the presidential candidate seems like Barack Obama the political organizer in Chicago’s south side. But puts it well when it says he’s running like he wants to win rather than as a leader of a movement. Let’s face it: movement leaders don’t win as politicians because they don’t calculate victories based on approval ratings.

I have been very disappointed in reading the book and drawing the comparison with the present day Obama because he isn’t the person he characterized himself to be in his memoirs. This blatant difference has been bothering me and had it been Senator McCain I think I would have been equally as bothered. We lack consistency in politicians and I’m realizing that this election will be no different, regardless of what new record it sets.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

Presidential candidates Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama have both be recently supporting faith-based initiatives in a move to gain voters.

President Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), created in early 2001, worked to strengthen faith-based and community organizations and expand their capacity to provided social services to local individuals. Billions of dollars in grants are available to faith-based and community organizations, with the Bush administration explaining that it was leveling an unfair playing field, where effective organizations, regardless of their size, cultural affiliation, or type can now be awarded funds.

Many have traditionally argued that the OFBCI crosses the line of separation between church and state, thereby violating the constitution, and may be discriminatory in which organization it funds. In contrast, others explain that the safeguards in place to keep the funding directed only for secular activities and without discrimination are sufficient, and that the initiatives are necessary to increase the availability of social services at a community level. How these safeguards are monitored is also an important item of contention.

In any case, Senators Obama and McCain have been reaching out to evangelical voters, with Obama announcing support to expand Bush's faith-based programs, emphasizing that the work of these community organizations would not replace government or secular nonprofit work, but work with it, and abide by the safeguards in place to so as not to "endanger the separation of church and state," as Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton explained. The safeguards?
  1. Government funds may not be used to support inherently religious activities, including prayer, religious education, or proselytizing.
  2. Religious activities must be offered separately in time or location for services that receive federal assistance.
  3. Organizations may not discrimination based religion and must uphold Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting employment discrimination.
What does this mean for the Muslim community? Regardless of whether one agrees with the constitutionality of the OFBCI, the reaching out to faith-based and community organizations is significant. As Muslims have been struggling to be heard this season, these initiatives provide the opportunity for local organizations to get pro-actively involved in issues faced by those in the community. While it provides substantial monetary aid, the OFBCI also serves as a mode of mobilization for a faith community and provides them with stronger voice and influence in civic society. The "accomodationists" versus the "separationists" debate has had long-lasting battles, and it will be interesting to see how this continues to play out this election season.

Do the Candidates Have What it Takes?

The 2008 presidential elections is shaping up to be an exciting race. As the candidates try to sell themselves to the American people as the best person for the job of President of the United States, one question comes to mind: What exactly qualifies someone to be president?
Throughout this campaign, Obama has been painted as lacking in experience. On the other side, recent comments have been made by retired Gen. Wesley Clark, foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign, questioning whether McCain's military service and horrendous war experiences qualify him for the job.
What do the American people want? Well, we don't really know. We say that we want someone who shares our values and can relate to our everyday problems; an every day joe, if you will. Yet, we want someone with "experience." The American media criticized Obama for being an "elite," accusing him of being out of touch with the average American. Yet, we must understand that to reach this point in one's political career, you have reached the point of a "political elite." McCain is just as an elite as the next guy or gal running for president. Being an elite means that you are knowledgeable and qualified. Is this a bad thing? That depends on whether you want someone qualified for the job of leader of the free world or someone who is just like you.
Criticisms of both candidates for flip-flopping have also inevitably come about: McCain on issues such as immigration, and Obama on issues such as public campaign finance. Americans want a president who is steadfast in her or his beliefs, right? Well, President Bush is pretty steadfast in his beliefs, I would say. He "sticks to his guns" at every turn, especially the war in Iraq, and yet he has a fairly low approval rating. When a politician changes her or his mind, does that make him or her untrustworthy? Probably not. It is human nature for people to change their minds; it helps us grow as intellectuals. Would it be better if the candidate never took any other opinion than his or her own into consideration? With such a variety of viewpoints in our diverse nation, it probably would be better for our leader to be open to new ideas.
So, what does it take to be president? Is it being an average American with steadfast ideals, or is it being knowledgeable and qualified with an openness to grow? America may never know...