Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Clinton Visit to Indonesia: Islam is a Religion

Newy York, NY, United States,

Indonesia was the second nation, after Japan, visited by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her first overseas mission for the Obama administration. This was brilliant and correct. There is broad consensus within foreign policy circles that the Asia rim poses the most complex challenges for the Obama administration.

Clinton, quite properly and naturally, had a center of focus for each Asian nation she visited. In Japan, it was strengthening the two countries’ alliance – with an angry glance over her shoulder at North Korea. In South Korea, the North Korean missile threat brought out the weary phraseology of conflict diplomacy – that the North’s actions were "very unhelpful” and the U.S. was “watching very closely."

That is good enough, though no nation considers itself a "rogue state," and normal human pride, not to mention Beloved Leader pride, raises the question of who gets to decide who's allowed to test missiles, and who not?

The Indonesia stop had a different essential message. "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seeking to reinvigorate Washington's ties with the Islamic world, said the Obama administration will develop relations with Indonesia as part of a U.S. diplomatic push in Southeast Asia," the Wall St. Journal said.

Again, this is a fine direction and an excellent message from the Obama administration, one of urgent necessity and launched in the right place. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country – around 200 million, or 86 percent of the population, are Muslim. A highly blessed confluence of geography and cultural and religious history has evolved into an exemplary vision for Muslim politics and society.

As Mark Duff, religious affairs reporter for the BBC, put it:

The national motto is "unity in diversity."

The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila, include a belief in God. But beyond this, religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths - even though almost 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim.

Moderation is therefore built into the country's constitutional framework.

Also part of the wisdom of placing this childhood home of President Barack Obama in the front line of foreign relations is its important domestic implications.

There are now 7 million Muslims in the United States, and another 1 million in Canada. Though still a small percent of the population, Muslims in America are important for a number of reasons: They are a multiform community – multi-ethnic, made up of both indigenous and immigrant communities – and compared to the rest of the population, they tend to be young, well-educated and positioned in solid middle-to-affluent economic demographics.

But perhaps most important is that Muslims in America tend to be religious, with attendance at Jumma, or Friday prayers, at a full 94 percent and mosque participation growing fully 75 percent in five years.

It is foundational to American thinking that religiosity functions as a spiritual and moral force in society. Spirituality and religiosity are helpful for the health and well-being of a country, especially in multi-faith environments with religious freedom.

Yet there is a vital cautionary note that must be recognized by Clinton and Obama. Islam is a religion. The administration’s actions and policy must reflect a deep understanding of the purely religious aspects of relations with "Islam."

To move properly in this arena requires consultation with knowledgeable religionists, most especially those with hard-won wisdom and expertise in interfaith relations. Despite well-meaning intent, these political figures cannot risk confusing political activity such as U.S.-Indonesia relations with religious activity such as improving relations with "the Muslim world."

This distinction is urgent and imperative. Failure to recognize the distinction is fraught with peril. U.S. relations with Indonesia, and with all the world's "Muslim regimes," must include elements that are "purely religious" in nature. Nations and religions and religious belief are different, and people like Clinton and Obama are trained in the former and not in the latter.

Obama is a self-confessed Christian. It is not impossible for him to understand and appreciate Islam, but it is not automatic either. Forging ever-deepening bonds across boundaries of true and passionately held religious faith is hard work and traverses a rewarding if perilous course. Missteps are easy in the world of interreligious relations and can have dire political consequences.

I offer praise for both the fact and the substance of the Indonesia visit. But I urge caution and beseech Clinton and Obama to avail themselves of sound counsel from people who know the difference between international and interreligious relations, and who are deeply steeped through life accomplishments in the latter.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Stimulus Counter Proposal

This morning a friend (a political professional) called:

"Excellent article Frank. I fully agree with the critique you laid out vis a vis the process that led up to passing the current stimulus package. But I must ask, what is your counter proposal?"

I responded that I did in fact have one, but my ignorance of the technical aspects of political life made me reluctant to put it forth.

He encouraged me on two fronts:
  1. As a person of ideas, it is your responsibility to live under that maxim that no idea is a bad idea. Others will help and refine on those occasions when your recommendations lack understanding.
  2. Secondly, the actual counter proposal I DID have, and proceeded to explain, in fact (according to this fellow) warranted airing in its content, substance, and its own right (not just "on principle").
The counter proposal view that I did not delineate as the way to approach the stimulus package in the "new way of politics" that Obama (and every president before him ) promised, lies in working one's way systematically, piece by piece through the available resources (780 billion) with consensus and emergency as the twin poles for generating prioritization.

Spending available funds piece by piece as emergency generates consensus and cooperation, does 3 things:
  1. It creates incentive for cooperation
  2. It nullifies horse-trading as a corrupt and sleazy form of "cooperation," "compromise."
  3. It allows ideological encounter on a high minded platform of care and public service en route eventually to collaborating on the most difficult areas of difference.
I compared this approach to the stimulus bill to "leaving Jerusalem for last," alluding to my view that there are tremendous steps toward peace that Israelis and Holy Land Arabs can take, without forcing onto the conversation as a massive stumbling block at the very outset the most intractable and difficult elements of the dialogue. Leave the biggest differences out (for the time being), and build up the muscles of cooperation while practicing on the matters where differences are small and emergency allows for cooperation over small gaps of difference.

This is the only pattern toward reconciliation that can work. Horse trading simply does not work. It does not create (the all necessary element of) deeper understanding of opposing passions and ideologies.

Thus all 780 billion in the stimulus package did not have to be decided upon before a dollar could be spent. It is that assumption that results in politics as usual, in pork, horse trading, and in ongoing partisan entrenchment that I criticized in my article.

Here's the model. My family has $5,000. We will spend all of it. The roof is leaking, Dad "needs" new clubs, daughter "needs" a new phone, the block association is threatening to have us evicted over the length of our grass. OK old politics, "Dad you can have your clubs if I can have a new phone every 6 months for the next 3 years." "The roof is leaking, can we take care of this please?" "You don't touch the roof until I get my phones." What family would possibly live like this?

The only way a family would suffer through such an absurd scenario is if there were some unexamined rule that the entire 5000 had to be "spent" all at once or not at all. No family would behave this way, yet this is how we run our nation, and this is how we just treated nearly a trillion dollars!

The normal way to proceed is. We've got $5000 and we need $650 to fix the roof. We all agree on that right? Good, let's do that, but while we're at it, we need $120 to hire a guy for the yard. The block association's patience is wearing mighty thin. The roof might be a shoo in as a family decision, instant agreement. The grass might need a little debate. Different opinions, but it can be talked out quickly and easily enough, especially as pending eviction looms.

The same pattern could have been done with stimulus money. The absolute emergencies can be worked out, agreed upon quickly, and instantly be acted upon. De-freeze credit and lending, tax relief for small businesses etc. As emergency measures are applied, economic developments follow, and expenditure plans might change to meet the new circumstances.

This simple shift in assumption would allow the new administration immediately to sever life support to "how Washington does business," as was promised.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

US troop buildup in Afghanistan could be a defining moment

Washington - President Obama's decision to deploy 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan may be a defining move that will either reverse the deteriorating situation there or mire the new administration in a war with no foreseeable end.

The president's announcement yesterday answered a months-old request from Gen. David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan, who is trying to reverse a two-year slide in the battle with Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents. Last year produced the most US combat fatalities, 155, of any single year of the Afghan war.

"This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction, and resources it urgently requires," Mr. Obama said yesterday.

The deployment order signed by the president includes about 8,000 marines, who will be sent into the thick of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan late this spring, in time for the busy fighting season. Another 4,000 soldiers from one of the Army's Stryker brigades will deploy by summer, and 5,000 troops will follow in coming months.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stimulus Package - Not a Victory

Only by partisan and non-progressive standards can the preliminary passing of this week's stimulus package be called a "victory" for the new Obama administration.

Both the political process and its analysis and commentary in the media were a feast for the demons of politics as usual.

Since 1992, (save the forces and advantages of incumbency), Americans have lurched to and fro voting through a fog of desperation and disgust. The 1994 Gingrich, congressional "revolution" resulted from embarrassment at dog-in-heat-concupiscence and raw ambition in the people's house. By 2000 enough Americans longed for the return of dignity to the White House, the return of meaning to words, and return of the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God. This longing for "ground" (moral, semantic, and juridical) created a "reaction-vote," a "bring me the opposite" vote. The 2000 election reflected the nation's desperate longing for a "straight-shooter."

No sooner were foundations "restored" (truth - what the meaning of is is), decency (fewer teenage orgies in the White House), than our other foundations promptly were attacked, goodness (the torture problem), and rights (the domestic spying problem).

Again the nation lurched in desperation, desperate for the return of foundations. This time we longed not for the meaning of is but for the ability to use the word correctly in a sentence, we longed not for a black and white world full of those not with us but against us, but a black and white person who IS us.

For all the historical beauty of the tearful and miraculous milestone full of sweetness and light, the governing since has failed to reflect the promise. There are the horrifying parallels in W's opening times and Obama's. Last week a legislative majority bullied the opposition. And again "emergency" was used to rush and ramrod through massive decisions with long term consequences.

Typically the political right is considered "strong on national security." From a cynical and political standpoint, W was "handed" the "Republican's dream"at the start of his presidency, a "security emergency" of consuming magnitude and a Republican legislative majority. Democrats were all but forced (politically) to violate the ideological impulses of their party, eventually voting to authorize the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation.

Conversely the political "left" is typically considered strong on domestic social welfare. Eerily this Democrat president was "handed" his own 9-11, a domestic "emergency" of parallel magnitude (global, economic collapse, job loss, education, health care, and welfare under threat). Eight years ago a Republican was "given" an "attack on America." Today s Democrat was given a trillion dollars to spend on domestic programs and a country teetering on such full blown socialism as the possibility of nationalizing banks! As if this perfect political "gift" were not enough, the Obama administration even tried to exploit the convenient "national security" fear tool in the service of governing heavy-handedly
The most immediate threat to U.S. security interests is the festering global economic crisis, the nation's top intelligence official told Congress on Thursday... Blair's remarks reflect both the depth of the unfolding recession and the Obama administration's more expansive definition of national security.
Every president comes into office promising a "new era of bipartisanship."
George W. Bush also insisted on uniting Americans. He wants "to serve one Nation" and not only his Republican supporters... Bush has the best abilities to be able to reunite America because of his Texas record where he successfully dealt with a Democratic legislative majority. [Says W] ... the bitter divide in American politics which has marked the entire Clinton presidency... should come to an end for the sake of America's future...

Bush as president is the best outcome of this election in the sense that he is a Washington outsider and not implicated in the intrigues and unfair battling which took place in the capital. [Sound familiar?] Moreover, after eight years of Democrats in power, the time for a change has come. Austria, France and Germany are examples of the 1990s which show what happens if one party dominates the executive for too long: its leaders are burned out, collusion, corruption and abuse of power become dangerous."

"I am a uniter not a divider."
Candidate Obama campaigned for president as a different kind of politician. Candidate Obama was all about change, about shaking up Washington and the political establishment. He appealed to the young and the politically disenchanted with calls for bipartisan solutions to the nation's most vexing challenges, energy, health care and getting the economy going again."

"We are not red states and blue states, but the United states of America."
We have not seen this in the approach to the passing the stimulus package. We have seen governing as did W leading up to the invasion of Iraq. We still see bullying by the manipulation of fear and "emergency." Fort Myers is the new USS Abraham Lincoln, Julio the broadcaster is our latest Joe the Plumber, enough in the minority party once again vote in violation of their traditional strengths, and ideologies, and fear and haste continue to infect what should be managed with extreme care and deliberate decision making.

The president must engage respectfully leading ideologues and veterans in the legislature, especially those from across the aisle. He must stop campaigning. We have already suffered and paid dearly from the Rove version of that same addiction.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. These opinions are his own.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hopeful News

Saudi king shakes up religious establishment

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The Saudi king on Saturday dismissed the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing the owners of TV networks that broadcast "immoral" content, signaling an effort to weaken the country's hard-line Sunni establishment.

The shake-up — King Abdullah's first since coming to power in August 2005 — included the appointment of a female deputy minister, the highest government position a Saudi woman has attained.

The king also changed the makeup of an influential body of religious scholars, for the first time giving more moderate Sunnis representation to the group whose duties include issuing the religious edicts known as fatwas.

Saudi Arabia's king does not have unlimited power. He has to take into account the sentiments of the sprawling ruling family as well as that of the powerful religious establishment, which helped found the state nearly a century ago.

Abdullah's changes indicate that he has built the necessary support and consensus in the religious elite and in the ruling family.

Article here

Friday, February 13, 2009

When toddlers point a lot, more words will follow

WASHINGTON (AP) — Don't just talk to your toddler — gesture, too. Pointing, waving bye-bye and other natural gestures seem to boost a budding vocabulary.Scientists found those tots who could convey more meaning with gestures at age 14 months went on to have a richer vocabulary as they prepared to start kindergarten.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Good News - the obvious strikes again

US News and World Report reports:
Promise of Cash Prompts Smokers to Quit
Financial incentives tripled rates of cessation, study found
Posted February 11, 2009
WEDNESDAY, Feb. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Offering hard, cold cash to smokers to spur them to stop their unhealthy habit helps more people give up cigarettes, new research finds.

The study, published in the Feb. 12 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, included a large group of General Electric Co. employees across the country who were offered up to $750 to give up smoking. After about a year, 14.7 percent of the group that was offered money were still smoke-free, compared to just 5 percent of those who weren't paid to kick the habit.

"Incentives do work in changing health behaviors, and they can be successful in people who have not succeeded using other approaches in the past," said study author Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School in Philadelphia.

Why couldn't researchers have invented this wheel in time to save us from the invasive, intrusive, vile and disgusting anti-smoking ads that pour unsolicited into our living rooms.

Sure smoking is a sad and vile addiction, but that should not give anyone the right to invade our homes with vile, ineffective media.