New Balls

Cartoon by Joep Bertrams

#MeToo is just beginning

By Suzanne B. Goldberg 

The Washington Post: In the swirl surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s mixed conviction and acquittal on rape and related charges, it can be easy to overlook what hasn’t changed in the wake of #MeToo. The movement has put a spotlight on the starkly divergent views that Americans hold about what kinds of behaviors cross the line into unwanted — and, at times, criminal — acts, and about what should happen when they do.

This is not to diminish the profound changes that have occurred. Just a few years ago, it was unimaginable that this powerful film producer would face sexual assault charges in two states and a mountain of public accusations by women around the world. Bill Cosby and Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, are in jail. R. Kelly has been indicted on multiple sexual abuse charges (though he denies them). Longtime CBS chief executive Les Moonves was fired following a dozen sexual harassment and assault allegations (which he also denies), and two federal judges have resigned their lifetime posts. #MeToo timelines show an A-list roster of other famous men who have admitted to sexually abusive behavior and many more who face credible accusations.

But Weinstein’s trial and all the other changes #MeToo has brought won’t put an end to the roiling debates about what counts as consent and how we should judge long-ago assaults. We’ll continue to disagree, too, about what legal and social sanctions should apply to conduct that is “bad but not as bad” as Weinstein’s.

This is a good thing. As uncomfortable and frustrating as these conversations can be, we cannot afford to stop talking about what we expect from each other when it comes to sex and to workplace interactions. Whatever one thinks about the precise contours of consent, thousands of people have now shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault, and it is simply implausible that they are all delusional or lying.

This outpouring of experiences prompts an even more basic question: Why have we done so little to stop sexual harassment and assault in our individual communities and as a nation, and what should we do now? Or, in terms of Hollywood, how could so many people stand by when “everyone knew” something was wrong, whether or not they thought the behavior was criminal?

This reckoning with ourselves is, or should be, one of the enduring legacies of Harvey Weinstein. We ought to take a hard look, for example, at the truth-seeking function of the criminal process and ask ourselves whether cross-examinations of victims that tap into sexual assault myths — “She couldn’t have been raped because she stayed friendly with him” or “She was using him just as much as he was using her” — are barriers to justice.

Nondisclosure agreements have already come under fire for insulating repeat offenders such as Roger Ailes of Fox News, who resolved many complaints by paying women in exchange for silence. At least 16 states now impose some restrictions on NDAs, and a growing number of large employers give harassed employees more control over whether to sign one, though gaps in these protections leave plenty of room for history to repeat itself.

But if we reckon only with criminal verdicts and civil lawsuits, we miss the point that most sexual harassment and assault will never be the subject of a formal complaint, much less a lawsuit or a criminal indictment. We live in a world where stigma and shame about being sexually assaulted and harassed remains strong, and fears about what will happen to those who complain are real, as a recent study on campus sexual assault and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s report on workplace harassment make clear.

It may sound surprising in the wake of Weinstein’s trial, but the solution is not primarily putting perpetrators in jail or firing all harassers — though holding perpetrators accountable is important, as is ensuring that district attorneys and corporations do not duck responsibility when allegations are made against someone powerful or famous. Nor will “don’t harass or assault people” trainings likely prompt much behavior change, though they absolutely have a place in reinforcing institutional policies and the consequences for violating them.

Instead, the most important thing we can do is correct the cultural failures that are endemic to the sexual interactions of Weinstein, his cohort and so many others whose abusive behavior will never be national news. A much-watched cartoon on consent, portrayed in terms of drinking tea, makes this point: Why would you force a person to drink a cup of tea that they don’t seem to want? And if you’re not sure if they want it, why would you keep pouring rather than stopping to ask?

In other words, as social media inevitably rages over whether Weinstein’s jury got it right, we are doomed to repeat this story unless we take the steps — in education, workplace equity and otherwise — to change at a more fundamental level what we expect from each other.

Germany's Fears

Cartoon by Enrico Bertuccioli

Germany Fears That the Center Will Not Hold

Bloomberg: It’s long been obvious that one of Germany’s formerly grand centrist parties, the left-leaning SPD, is in decline. But another and even grander centrist bloc, the Christian Democratic Union of Chancellor Angela Merkel, had hopes of avoiding that fate, by defending the hallowed middle ground in politics. Suddenly, though, Germany is having a full-bore political crisis of centrism.

Since Feb. 10, when the CDU’s chairwoman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, shocked the country by announcing that she would stand down, the party has descended into a leadership vacuum and an uncharacteristic bout of internal chaos. It now plans to clarify its succession at a party conference on April 25. Until then, the position as the CDU’s next boss and the party’s future direction are both up for grabs. So is German, and even European, politics, because the party’s new leader is also likely to be its candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor.

Germans are already punishing the CDU for the turmoil. On Feb. 23 only about 11% of voters in Hamburg plumped for the party, its lowest share in that city state since World War II. That follows setbacks in other big cities. Though still the strongest bloc nationally, the CDU is gradually becoming a redoubt of the rural and the old.

More dramatically, the Christian Democrats in the eastern state of Thuringia are rebelling against their party’s national leaders, as they contemplate whether and how to collaborate with the post-communist Left Party, which the CDU officially considers a pariah. That follows the Thuringian CDU’s disastrous decision on Feb. 5  — also in defiance of party bosses — to cooperate tacitly with the extreme-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), triggering a constitutional crisis in the state.

Are the CDU’s travails in Thuringia a harbinger of things to come in national politics, and perhaps in Europe as a whole? The ruckus may be another warning that centrism as such is losing its viability or even meaning.

The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, were born in the immediate post-war years as “Christian unions” in the sense that they mopped up former parties of the Weimar era that appealed narrowly either to Catholics or Protestants. That early preponderance of clergy gave the bloc its color in the spectrum of German parties: black, like the robes.

From the start, the Union, as the pair are jointly known, amalgamated a range of interest groups, from cultural conservatives to Catholic quasi-socialists and free-market liberals. Unlike the “red” SPD, which appealed to blue-collar workers, “black” was always a big tent. Its pitch was never ideological purity but tight discipline among the rank and file and pragmatism in government. Tellingly, its winning slogan in 1957 was “no experiments.” Pundits dubbed it a “club for the election of chancellors” — the CDU has fielded five of post-war Germany’s eight leaders.

One of the Union’s roles was to be a bulwark against extremism. Franz Josef Strauss, a grandee of the CSU, famously said that there must never be a legitimate party to the Union’s right. Nowadays, of course, there is, after the AfD entered the federal parliament in 2017. One theory is that Merkel bears part of the responsibility for its rise. As CDU leader from 2000 to 2018 and chancellor since 2005, she tried to modernize her party by nudging it further left, thus alienating conservatives and leaving the right flank open.

The stated policy of the CDU and CSU has always been to shun and shame the AfD. According to a so-called “horseshoe theory” that regards far left and far right as equally dangerous, the Union also spurns the Left, which descends from the Communist Party of the former East Germany, contains radical factions, disdains NATO and coddles Russia.

The problems with horseshoe shaming have become clear in Thuringia. The state is unusual in that the centrist parties are already in a minority in the local legislature, and the AfD and Left together have the majority. By simple arithmetic, as long as all centrist parties rule out any cooperation, even of the passive sort, with both the far left and right, there will be stalemate. Who can and will govern Thuringia remains unclear.

Another question is whether the symmetrical treatment of far left and right still makes political sense. After a racist murder rampage by a right-winger, some of the AfD’s political rhetoric increasingly sounds like demagogic arson. By contrast, the Left may be unsavory, but in eastern Germany it’s part of the woodwork. Its Thuringian candidate, Bodo Ramelow, is pragmatic and harmless, almost bourgeois.

Nonetheless, the candidates now jostling to lead the CDU fear touching anybody on left or right. “If we start voting for Mr. Ramelow as premier, then we can’t represent the center anymore,” says Norbert Roettgen, one of the runners to replace Kramp-Karrenbauer.

The sentiment is understandable. And yet, German and European politics keeps fragmenting. Sooner or later this will necessitate new, strange, even awkward forms of parliamentary collaboration — not to betray but to save democracy. Otherwise centrists may find that treading the middle of an ever busier road will get them run over.

Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.

Iran’s elections

Cartoon by Rainer Hachfeld

Iran’s elections: a closing door 


The Guardian: Iran’s election on Friday was a blow to moderates, a disappointment for conservative rulers and bad news for the region too. The result was largely ordained before anyone could cast a ballot. Hardliners appear to have swept the parliamentary contest – taking all 30 seats in Tehran – because the authorities ensured that they would. The Guardian Council, which is loosely under the control of the supreme leader, had disqualified around half of the thousands of candidates for the 290-seat body, including 90 serving members. While parliament’s powers are limited, it can impede the president and shape the political environment; with a presidential race due next year, the result sets a course for conservative control of every branch of government – as seen during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grim tenure.

Yet the outcome of Friday’s poll was far from the endorsement sought. Despite the supreme leader’s exhortations to vote, the extension of polling hours and the anger engendered by the US assassination of Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds force, a usually active electorate stayed away. Turnout stood at just 42.5%, the first time it has dipped below 50% since the 1979 revolution; in Tehran it was just 25%.

Though Ayatollah Khamenei blamed Iran’s enemies for exaggerating the threat of the new coronavirus, it is not surprising that so many voters saw little point in participating. Not only were their candidates struck from this contest, but they have little to show for supporting them in the past. In 2013, the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidency pledging to end his country’s isolation and revive its economy. The resulting nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) ensured a landslide when he stood again in 2017. Yet the opposition he has faced internally, the moderates’ own shortcomings and, above all, the Trump administration’s hostility have left the country in desperate straits. The unilateral US withdrawal from the JCPOA and its reimposition of sanctions are strangling the country’s economy: the World Bank estimates that it shrank by almost 9% last year. Inflation and unemployment have soared. Europe’s efforts to shore up the deal have yet to offer relief; they must continue.

The frustrations found an outlet in November’s brutally suppressed protests – the third outbreak of unrest in as many years – and have only grown since then. The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane, which Iran denied for days before admitting responsibility, prompted fresh protests and further exposed the rifts between and within the country’s institutions. Now a coronavirus outbreak, the deadliest outside China, is spreading in a country where the health system is already under immense strain due to sanctions. It will also deepen economic woes: on Sunday, Pakistan and Turkey announced they were closing their borders and Afghanistan said it was suspending all travel to and from the country.

Domestic incompetence and corruption have unquestionably contributed to the hopelessness that so many Iranians feel today. But it is above all the Trump administration’s choices – in walking out of the JCPOA, imposing punishing sanctions and assassinating General Suleimani, arguably the second most powerful man in the country after the supreme leader – which have tightened the grip of hardliners and strengthened the belief that cultivating its nuclear programme and its proxies is a better bet than counting on meetings with western diplomats. A vital opportunity has been squandered, and Iranians are paying the price. Others may do so too. 

Sham Elections

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi

Despondent Iranian Kurds skip parliamentary elections

Rudaw: SANANDAJ, Iran – Small polling station crowds in the city of Sanandaj in western Iran’s Kurdistan province this morning were a bleak early indicator for the regime in Tehran which has urged the public to vote in Friday's parliamentary elections.

Polling stations in Sanandaj’s Shalman neighborhood were near empty of both voters and security force members. No one was allowed to take any photographs to document the scene.

It took each voter a few minutes to enter the polling station, cast their vote, and leave. I saw a middle aged man, Ahmed Khani, and his wife, dressed in a black chador (cloak and scarf), coming out of the polling station.

Ahmed spoke to Rudaw English in the Kalhuri dialect of Kurdish language, spoken in the Kermanshah and Qorveh parts of Kurdistan province. He described participation in the election as a national duty. He said he came to the polls in response to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s call to vote to honor the death of Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian general killed in Baghdad by a US drone strike last month.

The emptiness of the polling station, Ahmed explains, is because the area is home to wealthy people who do not vote. However, he held out hope that the people of Kurdistan province would perform their national duty and ignore enemy propaganda calling for a vote boycott.

Amid political repression, a debilitating economic situation, and a purge of election candidates that severely limited voter choice, activists both in and outside of the country called for Iranians not to turn up to the vote.

Iranian authorities scrambled to combat the threat of a low turnout, urging voters to come out and perform their civic obligation. They extended voting hours for a total of five hours due to a "rush of voters" to polling stations, Reuters quoted state television as saying.

Abdullah, 38, is a taxi driver in Shalman. Taxi driving is his side job – he also works at the city’s heritage office, but says he has not received his salary in six months.

He expressed a deep despondency about Iran’s political future, saying that whoever becomes a member of parliament thinks only about lining their pockets.

The boycott is going strong, Abdullah says, despite attempts to counter it. He told Rudaw English he was being threatened by his heritage office boss to vote, or else face repercussions. He says he will nevertheless persist in his participation in the boycott.

“People are all fed up, barely making ends meet. In the last few years, each [official] visiting the area has promised to improve their conditions – but nothing has changed,” Abdullah said.

Sudaba, 50, lives in the poor neighborhood of Naysar, and works as a servant for an elderly woman. She told Rudaw English she is fed up of life and no longer believes anyone.

“My husband is sick. We have four children and we live in a rental house. Our monthly income is $40. The candidates wanted to deceive us by offering us cooking oil, ignorant of the fact that we have many issues and sufferings, and that this will not work to relieve us,” she told Rudaw English.

Most of those who go to polls do so to get rations of cooking oil or rice, fearing that their failure to attend will result in their rations being revoked, Subada said.

Kurdistan province, one of the poorest in Iran, saw some of the deadliest crackdown by security forces when nationwide protests began after an overnight tripling of the price of fuel in November of last year. Estimates for the number of people killed in their short run range from 500 to as many as 1,500.

Poorer, more populated neighborhoods have historically seen a larger voter turnout, but today, the Kani Kuzala and 25 areas of Sanandaj were not as busy as I had expected they would be.

Zhila, 25, is a recent university graduate. She explained to Rudaw English from a pooling station that election turnout is higher in poorer and rural areas – where many of the candidates in this election call home.

“I have come here only to get my jinsiya (residency card) stamped, to avoid potential issues in the future,” she told Rudaw English at a polling station.
“However, I do know that our lives won’t change, and youth unemployment and poverty will continue, no matter who is elected.”

The most crowded place I encountered was Jame’I mosque, in downtown Sanandaj. Even so, it was not as crowded as during the last election. It is also likely that those crowds were because it was Friday, when weekly congregational prayers take place.

Activists from the Kurdistan province cities of Mariwan and Diwandara told Rudaw English election turnout there was also low; others, from the cities of Saqqez and Baneh, said attendance in their cities was higher.


Apathy and Anger

Cartoon by Hassan Bleibel

Iran votes: How apathy and anger are fueling leaders’ unease

By Scott Peterson

Christian Science Monitor: There is still no shortage of True Believers in Iran’s revolution ready to cast ballots for hard-line and conservative candidates in Friday’s parliamentary election.

But there are also a growing number of Iranians whose disappointment, apathy, and anger at the ruling system – and its repeated inability to improve their lives through the ballot box – have led to one of the most lackluster election campaigns in recent memory.

Turnout in the one-sided contest – the candidates’ ranks have been purged of thousands of moderate and reformist voices – is expected to be at record lows.

Officials from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on down, have all but begged citizens to show up so they can equate – as in the past – high voter turnout with continued popular support for Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and its rulers.

“The polls will defuse America’s evil intentions,” Ayatollah Khamenei said Tuesday, adding that voting was a religious duty. “A weak parliament will adversely change the course of Iran’s fight against the enemies.”

But Iran is reeling from an annus horribilis marked by violent street protests over fuel price hikes last November amid a biting “maximum pressure” campaign of U.S. sanctions. The protests were halted only by a brutal crackdown that left several hundred dead.

Other blows include the assassination by the United States of Iran’s most powerful general in January, and in the aftermath, the brief cover-up of the Revolutionary Guard’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian jetliner, which killed all 176 people aboard and sparked more anti-regime protests.

The rejection of 7,296 candidates (including 80 sitting lawmakers) out of 15,000 who applied to contest 290 seats in parliament indicates a high level of anxiety by Iran’s rulers, analysts say, and reflects a determination to leave no chance of a last-minute reformist surge.

Tools of change

It also shows the extent, as the Islamic Republic evolves after four decades, to which elected institutions like parliament and even the presidency have been eviscerated as tools of change.

One result may be unified rule by hard-liners, which in every previous configuration – under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example – not only failed to solve Iran’s problems, but often made them worse.

“I did vote in the past, but not anymore. How can I give a seal of approval on this regime’s performance?” asks Yaser, a married taxi driver in his 40s who has worked for Iran’s version of Uber in Tehran since his cellphone business went bust amid currency fluctuations.

“The sanctions have crippled us. Yes, the U.S. is blamed, but how about domestic corruption?” says Yaser. “I have no doubt [the regime] will collapse sooner or later. Let’s not forget the victims of the November protests. They were out for us, we can’t go out [to support] the regime, which killed them in broad daylight.”

That view is echoed by Shirin, a student of applied linguistics in her 20s, who sits in a cafe in central Tehran where, as in other Iranian cities, turnout is expected to be as low as 20% to 30%. Nationwide, Iran’s leaders hope for a 50% show of support.

“I can’t see any bright future, but I can’t see this regime’s [exit] any time soon either,” says Shirin, who plans to emigrate to Canada. “So, I won’t waste my life anymore here.”

“Hopelessness” cited

Such sentiments have only become more widespread as Iranians use the word “hopelessness” more and more about their economic plight and disdain for politics.

“At any juncture, where there was a possibility to decide on a more inclusive system, the decision was made in the direction of exclusion – explicitly – [which] makes the base of the regime even smaller,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert recently retired from the University of Hawaii.

“The hopelessness comes from the question of what to aspire to,” says Ms. Farhi. Many Iranians “want the regime to reform itself, but they are realizing that it cannot, and it constantly shows that it cannot.”

“They ask, ‘If it cannot reform itself, what else can we do?’ And they realize that anything they want to do might lead to further violence and instability,” she says. “So, hopelessness is precisely the right word, because you are stuck in a system you don’t know how to impact in a positive direction.”

President Hassan Rouhani noted as much when he warned the Guardian Council, the 12-member body that vets candidates, that it had gone too far in barring so many less-hard-line voices.

“The biggest danger to democracy and the rule of the nation comes on the day when elections turn into a formality, when choices are made somewhere else,” Mr. Rouhani said Jan. 27.

Loss of control?

The president was rebuked by Ayatollah Khamenei, who days later said: “When you say that the elections have been engineered, the people become naturally discouraged.”

The supreme leader, calling upon Iranians to vote for their nation and for “security” – even if they do not personally like him – said Iran’s enemies, “although they are afraid of our missiles, they are more intimidated by the Islamic Republic’s popular support.”

But past gambits to boost voter turnout are not being used. Previous Iranian elections have been notable for how the political space for criticism opened up and social restrictions were eased in the weeks before election day, to help reassure voters.

Not this time.

“I expected a bit of loosening ... to open the atmosphere, but it is exactly the opposite,” says a veteran political analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “They are tightening it up, they are showing very little tolerance for any dissent. They are arresting students, they are searching and raiding some of the journalists’ homes.

“I think they are worried very much, judging by this security getting tighter. They don’t feel relaxed, that they are in complete control,” says the analyst.

“The regime knows, the decision-makers know, that the people are not enthusiastic about the elections. ... They are suffering,” he says. “This disappointment, confusion, and hopelessness about the future is not limited to the middle class and lower class, it has extended to the loyalists – the people who have always been ready to vote.”

He notes that the term mostaza’fin, “the oppressed,” who have long been lionized in Iran’s revolutionary discourse, has rarely been used officially since that very category of people rose up in protest at poor economic conditions in early 2018 >>>

Iran Elections

Cartoon by Kianoush Ramezani

Iran’s ‘Hard-Liner in Chief’ Is Only Vote That Counts

Bloomberg: Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

When the results come in from tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in Iran, they will likely show a sweeping victory for the hard-line faction of its political establishment. This outcome will lead many Tehranologists to conclude that President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has empowered the hard-liners and doomed the prospect of a new nuclear deal.

They will be wrong on both counts.

Iran’s hard-liners do not need — indeed, have never needed — external empowerment. They already have absolute control over all the levers of power that matter. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is a hard-liner, along with the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Supreme National Security Council, the Guardian Council, the Assembly of Experts, the judiciary… the list goes on. Thus has it been since the revolution of 1979 brought the theocrats to power.

Parliament, formally known as the Islamic Consultative Assembly, has never been more than a talking shop, where the tallies of the hard-line, reformist and centrist-moderate factions of the regime — Iran allows no political parties — fluctuate without much consequence. Whatever the assembly’s deliberations, in the end it is Khamenei’s writ that runs. His control of the 12-member Guardian Council, which interprets the constitution and approves legislation, ensures that no laws are enacted except at his pleasure.

To give the impression of democratic process, Khamenei may occasionally allow reformists or centrists to “win” a parliamentary election, but his weighty finger on the scale prevents the implementation of their policies. Every so often, he presses down harder, to guarantee a victory for his hard-liners — again, using the Guardian Council to disqualify aspirants from the other factions.

Typically, he does this every eight years — or two parliamentary cycles. Friday’s election comes after two terms in which the hard-liners have, at least notionally, been on the equivalent of the opposition benches. Sure enough, Khamenei is again tipping the scale. The Guardian Council has disqualified more candidates than ever before — and, wouldn’t you know it, a disproportionate number are from the reformist and centrist camps.

The bottom line is this: No matter the external conditions, the hard-liners were due a “comeback” in parliament, and Khamenei was going to ensure this outcome. Yes, Trump and the U.S. sanctions have been talking points in the election campaign, but they have been used by all factions, and their impact on the results will be moot.

Much more germane to the prospects of the hard-liners is turnout. There is every indication that, disillusioned by their deeply corrupt political system, many Iranians — especially those of the reformist or centrist persuasion — will sit out the vote. This has historically been good for the hard-liners: In Iran as in actual democracies, extremists are always motivated on election day.

Khamenei’s quandary is that he wants his hard-liners to win with a big turnout. He has been exhorting Iranians to vote, to show the world that they are behind him and his policies. (Amusingly, for a man with highly questionable clerical qualifications, he has described this as a religious duty.)

But Iranian voters would have to be willing to forgive their Supreme Leader for decades of misrule, and to forget the corruption of his regime, his brutal crackdown on protests, the recent shooting down of a civilian jetliner — and the attempted cover-up thereafter.

If Iranians don’t respond to his call, it would be a vote of no-confidence on Khamenei’s reign. To forestall that embarrassment, the turnout figure may well be fudged: Khamenei is not above ordering the stuffing of ballot boxes, as he did in the 2009 presidential election, when his choice, the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, looked set to lose. 

The results of Friday’s vote may not meaningfully change Iran’s policies, internal or external, but they will mark a minor milestone: the formal start of the lame-duck phase of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. His half-hearted efforts at reform were never going to go very far with Khamenei at the helm; a parliament dominated by hard-liners will confirm his complete isolation and impotence.  

What does that mean for negotiations with the U.S. and the West? A victory for hard-liners will be accompanied by warmed-over anti-American rhetoric, but the cold reality is that negotiations were always going to have to wait until after the lame duck had limped off the center-stage.

There will be a presidential election in 2021, and in keeping with the cyclical nature of Iranian politics, Rouhani’s successor will likely be a hard-liner, too. That would suggest more ill tidings. But it won’t be the president who decides whether or not to open parleys: As usual, that will be the Supreme Leader’s call.

For now, Khamenei says a new deal is out of the question. But by 2021, the country will have endured nearly two more years of economic pain from the U.S. sanctions, as well as the incalculable opportunity cost of falling behind its regional rivals. If the past couple of years are any guide, more spasms of protest will ensue from a public that is growing increasingly impatient with the Supreme Leader.

Who knows, there might even be a new president in the White House.

These conditions would not guarantee negotiations, much less a new deal, though they will at least be more conducive than those that now prevail. But in the short run, the results of Friday’s election will make little difference to the chances of peace.

Mt. Rushmore

Cartoon by Bill Day

Trump’s attempt to govern as a ‘king’

Raw Story: President Donald Trump’s partisan acquittal from impeachment, attacks on the Justice Department, and efforts to shield or pardon criminals and corrupt politicians is already taking its toll.

On MSNBC Tuesday, New York University Law professor Melissa Murray said that the president’s behavior is coloring her own law students’ view of the world, and of their future career.

“We often learn from you, the big picture of what you tell your students,” said host Ari Melber. “For people watching this, if this evidence lines up this way, this looks like it is bad and getting worse. What do you say to them?”

“So I am teaching constitutional law right now at NYU,” said Murray. “The other day, my students and I talked about a case, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, about the president’s immunity from civil suits. One of the things the court says there is that, in immunizing the president from civil suits, you don’t make him a king. He is still subject to these other checks — the impeachment process, the free press, the prospect of his legacy.”

“When I said all these things in class, my students laughed,” said Murray. “And I don’t think I’ve ever been more disheartened as a lawyer and a teacher to be in front of 112 new lawyers, people who are learning to be lawyers, who are so jaded and cynical about the prospect of justice, and the powers of the president being vested in someone who does not use them for the public trust but clearly uses them for his own gains. And it’s sad.”

Serving Justice

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle

1,100 Former DOJ Employees Call On Barr To Resign

NPR: More than 1,100 former Department of Justice officials are calling on Attorney General William Barr to resign after his department lowered the prison sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime ally of President Trump, in a move that's led to accusations of political interference.

In a letter released Sunday, the former DOJ officials, who have worked across Republican and Democratic administrations, wrote that Barr's intervention in the Stone case has tarnished the department's reputation.

"Such behavior is a grave threat to the fair administration of justice," the former officials wrote. "In this nation, we are all equal before the law. A person should not be given special treatment in a criminal prosecution because they are a close political ally of the President. Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies."

On Monday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington had recommended a prison sentence of up to nine years for Stone's 2019 conviction on charges including making false statements to Congress and witness tampering.

On Twitter, Trump said the sentencing recommendation amounted to "a horrible and very unfair situation."

But then on Tuesday, the Justice Department intervened, ordering a new sentencing memo and calling for lighter punishment. A senior DOJ official told NPR that officials were "shocked" at the original recommendation.

Four line prosecutors then quit the case.

The next day, Trump congratulated Barr on Twitter "for taking charge" of the Stone case.

To Julie Zebrak, who's among the former DOJ officials who signed the letter, Barr's behavior shatters a cardinal norm that has been in place for decades: that the Justice Department's prosecutorial decisions should not be influenced by the White House.

Zebrak told NPR that Barr's move "sent shockwaves through the former DOJ alumni."

She added: "We are all watching in a really rapid and terrifying way the undermining of the department and the diminishment of the rule of law. We have to sort of speak up and speak out when we can."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice declined to comment.

Stone is set to be sentenced on Thursday. It will ultimately be up to U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presiding over Stone's trial, to hand down his punishment.

Barr has denied discussing with Trump the decision to intervene in the Stone case. In an interview Thursday with ABC News, Barr took the exceedingly rare step of criticizing Trump as a sitting member of the president's cabinet. Barr said he would like Trump to "stop tweeting," since the president's commentary makes it "impossible" to do his job.

Justice Department officials did inform the White House about the interview before it aired, a person familiar with the matter told NPR.

Yet the hundreds of former DOJ officials admonished Barr for the appearance of carrying out a political favor for Trump.

"Mr. Barr's actions in doing the President's personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words," the letter says.

The letter also asks current Justice Department officials to push back against actions seen as violating their oath of office, much like the "heroic" four prosecutors who withdrew from the Stone case.

Current DOJ staff, according to the former department officials, should "be prepared to report future abuses" to the Inspector General, the Office of Professional Responsibility and Congress.

"We likewise call on the other branches of government to protect from retaliation those employees who uphold their oaths in the face of unlawful directives," the letter says. "The rule of law and the survival of our Republic demand nothing less."

The letter was organized by the nonprofit legal organization Protect Democracy, which in the past said that Trump's conduct described in the Mueller report would be sufficient for felony charges for obstruction of justice.

Barr is scheduled to testify in front of the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee on March 31.

This is how democracy dies

Cartoon by Robert Ariail

This is how democracy dies — in full view of a public that couldn’t care less 

By Max Boot, Columnist

The Washington Post: The French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in 1748: “The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” We are seeing his warning vindicated. President Trump is increasingly acting as a tyrannical (and erratic) prince. And yet much of the public is so inured to his misconduct that his latest assaults on the rule of law are met with a collective shrug. Public passivity is Trump’s secret weapon as he pursues his authoritarian agenda. “I have the right to do whatever I want,” he says, and the lack of pushback seems to confirm it.

So much bad has happened since Trump was unjustly acquitted by the Senate of two articles of impeachment on Feb. 5 that it’s hard to keep it all straight.

Trump fired Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for complying with a congressional subpoena and providing truthful testimony about Trump’s attempts to extort Ukraine into aiding him politically. Also ousted was Vindman’s brother, who did not testify. This sends a mob-like message: If you turn stool pigeon, your family gets it, too.

Trump’s ongoing quest for retribution has also claimed Jessie K. Liu, who was abruptly removed as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and replaced by a close aide to Attorney General William P. Barr after prosecuting Trump loyalists, including Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Now Liu’s nomination to a senior Treasury Department position has been withdrawn. Next on the chopping block may be Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon official who tried to tell the Office of Management and Budget that Trump had no right to withhold aid to Ukraine. The New York Post reported that her nomination to be Pentagon comptroller will be withdrawn. (McCusker denies the report.)

While punishing those who dared to tell the truth, Trump is protecting those who assist his coverup. He inveighed against the request of federal prosecutors, following normal sentencing guidelines, to give Stone a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for witness tampering and lying to Congress. Trump also attacked the judge overseeing Stone’s case and the forewoman of the jury that convicted him. The Justice Department then asked for a reduced sentence. Four prosecutors resigned from the case in protest, and one quit the Justice Department.

Even Barr was driven to denounce Trump’s public interference in the legal system, saying that the president’s tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors and the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.” In response, Trump asserted that he has the “legal right” to determine who gets prosecuted — technically true but hardly in keeping with American tradition.

Barr’s protests ring hollow given how eager he has been to subvert his own department on Trump’s behalf — for example, by mischaracterizing the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Barr has appointed one prosecutor to review Flynn’s conviction and another to investigate the FBI and CIA personnel who uncovered the Russian plot to elect Trump in 2016. The New York Times reports that the latter prosecutor, John H. Durham, has raised alarm in the intelligence community by appearing to pursue a theory, popular among right-wing conspiracy mongers, “that the C.I.A., under its former director John O. Brennan, had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result.”

Anxiety about attempts to politicize justice will only grow because of a Post report that Trump was furious that the Justice Department did not file charges against former FBI director James B. Comey and former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe — even though there is no evidence that either of these men broke any laws. After learning that his enemies were not being indicted, The Post reports, “Trump has become more insistent that Durham finish his work soon,” because he “wants to be able to use whatever Durham finds as a cudgel in his reelection campaign.”

As Justice Department veteran David Laufman writes, “We are now truly at a break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment for the Justice Dept.” But does anyone give a damn? Democratic lawmakers are, to be sure, perturbed, but it’s easy (if unfair) to write off their outrage as mere partisanship. Republican members of Congress, as usual, either have nothing to say or offer ineffectual expressions of “concern.”

And the public? I don’t see massive marches in the streets. I don’t see people flooding their members of Congress with calls and emails. I don’t see the outrage that is warranted — and necessary. I see passivity, resignation and acquiescence from a distracted electorate that has come to accept Trump’s aberrant behavior as the norm.

A recent Gallup poll found that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans — the supposed law-and-order party — is at a record-high 94 percent. His support in the country as a whole is only 43.4 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average, but he is still well positioned to win reelection, because most people seem to care a lot more about the strength of the stock market than about the strength of our democracy. This is how democracies die — not in darkness but in full view of a public that couldn’t care less.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Cartoon by Dave Granlund

Trump Continues to Dismiss the Severity of Traumatic Brain Injuries

Washington Monthly: While serving as president, Donald Trump has told more than 16,241 lies, according to the Washington Post. But one of them might be somewhat defensible. That’s the lie that Iran’s retaliation against the United States for the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani did not cause any injuries.

Why is this falsehood more excusable than the others? It’s because there was a risk that if the truth were known about the over 100 troops who suffered traumatic brain injuries from the concussions of the missile attacks, the public would clamor for retaliation. And that could have led to an ill-advised war that cost untold injuries and deaths.

Lying to save lives seems better than lying to cover up misdeeds. The decision to kill Soleimani was impulsive and reckless, and probably a misdeed under international law. But Trump was willing to allow Iran a face-saving gesture rather than using it as a pretext to escalate to full-out war.

So, while I can be a little forgiving of Trump for his desire to downplay the severity of Iran’s response, that doesn’t mean that I can approve of the way he continues to minimize the impact on the wounded soldiers. At first, after he learned that dozens of Americans had suffered traumatic brain injuries, he dismissed this as “not very serious” and said that some folks were experiencing “headaches.” But, even now that the number has exceeded 100 and more than twenty are still getting treatment, Trump continues to act like he doesn’t care.

    In an interview with Fox Business on Monday, the president said he didn’t think the Iranians “were looking to do too much damage, because they knew what the consequences were going to be.”

    “I saw the missiles. We saw them going … They landed in a way that they didn’t hit anybody,” Trump told Fox Business’ Trish Regan.

    The president said that he “stopped something that would have been very devastating for” the Iranians, an apparent reference to US de-escalation in the aftermath of the attack.

    “And then a couple of weeks later I started hearing about people having to do with trauma, head trauma,” he said. “That exists. But it’s, you know, I viewed it a little bit differently than most, and I won’t be changing my mind on that.”

Try to imagine any parent receiving a phone call and getting the news that their child has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Then imagine that the president of the United States continually acted like this was not serious and nothing to be concerned about. How would that parent feel?

When the word “brain” is coupled with the words “traumatic” and “injury,” that kind of says it all. But obviously there are negative consequences, often severe and life-long. I think it would be okay now that immediate risk of war with Iran has passed, for Trump to show a little worry about the health of the people he put in harm’s way.