Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sunday Reading

No Bluffing — President Obama tells The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg how he views the relationship between the U.S., Israel, and Iran.

In the most extensive interview he has given about the looming Iran crisis, Obama told me earlier this week that both Iran and Israel should take seriously the possibility of American action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.” He went on, “I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”

The 45-minute Oval Office conversation took place less than a week before the president was scheduled to address the annual convention of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, and then meet, the next day, with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House. In the interview, Obama stated specifically that “all options are on the table,” and that the final option is the “military component.” But the president also said that sanctions organized by his administration have put Iran in a “world of hurt,” and that economic duress might soon force the regime in Tehran to rethink its efforts to pursue a nuclear-weapons program.

“Without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested,” Obama said. “It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to to be the best decision for Israel’s security.”

The president also said that Tehran’s nuclear program would represent a “profound” national-security threat to the United States even if Israel were not a target of Iran’s violent rhetoric, and he dismissed the argument that the United States could successfully contain a nuclear Iran.

“You’re talking about the most volatile region in the world,” he said. “It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe.” He went on to say, “The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.”

Read the whole piece, including the president’s views on Syria.

Not All Roses and Rainbows — Frank Rich looks at the rapid progress of gay rights in America in recent history and charts out the bumps in the road ahead.

The first is obvious: Full equality for gay Americans is nowhere near at hand. One of America’s two major political parties is still hell-bent on thwarting and even rolling back gay rights much as Goldwater Republicans and Dixie Democrats (on their way to joining the GOP) resisted civil-rights legislation and enforcement in the sixties. In most states, sexual orientation can still be used to deny not only marriage but also jobs and housing, as well as to curtail adoption rights. America’s dominant religions remain largely hostile to homosexuality, and America’s most cherished secular pastime, professional sports, is essentially a no-gay zone. The bullying of gay and transgendered children remains a national crisis. While Nielsen tells us that gay concerns and characters are “the new mainstream” of television—figuring in 24 percent of broadcast prime-time programming last season—we do not yet live in the United States of Glee.

The second thing that’s wrong with the picture is far less obvious because it has been willfully obscured. In the outpouring of provincial self-congratulation that greeted the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, some of the discomforting history that preceded that joyous day has been rewritten, whitewashed, or tossed into a memory hole. We—and by we, I mean liberal New Yorkers like me, whether straight or gay, and their fellow travelers throughout America—would like to believe that the sole obstacles to gay civil rights have been the usual suspects: hidebound religious leaders both white and black, conservative politicians (mostly Republican), fundamentalist Christian and Muslim zealots, and unreconstructed bigots. What’s been lost in this morality play is the role that many liberal politicians and institutions have also played in slowing and at some junctures halting gay civil rights in recent decades.

It was, after all, the trustees of the Smithsonian Institution, not a Bible Belt cultural outpost, who bowed to pressure from the militant Catholic League just fifteen months ago to censor the work of a gay American artist who had already been silenced, long ago, by AIDS. It was a Democratic president, with wide support from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, one of the most discriminatory laws ever to come out of Washington. It’s precisely because of DOMA that to this day same-sex marriages cannot be more than what you might call placebo marriages in the eight states (plus the District of Columbia) that have legalized them. DOMA denies wedded same-sex couples all federal benefits—some 1,000, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans’ programs—and allows the other 42 states to ignore their marriages altogether.

Different Degrees of Poverty — Mark Roth looks at the two types of poverty in America and how it plays in politics.

In this election year, when the nation is debating its obligations to those in economic distress, the poor have two faces.

One belongs to some of the poor people Grasela Amador, a 54-year-old Ohio woman, sees at a food bank where she works. “A lot of people do take advantage of it [assistance programs], and that ain’t right,” she said, referring to those who have made welfare a way of life. Ms. Amador believes that while government programs should exist to help people in need, they should be temporary.

The other belongs to people such as Sharon Taylor, a 38-year-old Pittsburgh mother of four who is going to school and working part-time at Target. “Living in poverty is not something that has to stay that way,” she says. “If you put enough work and effort into it, you can achieve a higher goal. Being middle class is something I believe I can reach if I work hard and stay on a straight path.”

The tension between the deserving and undeserving poor — along with the difficulty of defining who they are and the politically charged task of differentiating between them — is part of the tension between the two main political parties as they position themselves for a bruising presidential election campaign. The contest again raises urgent questions about personal responsibility and government responsibility, about independence and community, and about what obligations individuals have for their economic circumstances and what obligations the rest of us have to ameliorate their distress.

The election-year dustup over the poor began this winter.

The day after his convincing victory in the Florida Republican primary, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts told CNN that as a presidential candidate: “I’m not concerned about the very poor, because we have a safety net, and if it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”

Mr. Romney’s remarks sent the liberal blogosphere into overdrive, but the reaction from other candidates was muted.

President Obama said his sense of obligation to help the poor and others who are suffering had been shaped by his religious values, and he suggested that eliminating tax breaks for the rich was a way of carrying out that obligation.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania proclaimed, “I care about 100 percent of America,” but said nothing specific about the problems of the poor or how he would address them.

It was one of the few times poverty had been mentioned at all in a presidential contest dominated by the deficit, taxes, health care, and personal ethics, and it isn’t likely to become a continuing issue.

Why is that?

The cynical view is that poor people don’t vote or don’t vote enough.

Doonesbury — Going for the distaff reader.